July 23, 2020

It’s been a while since I reviewed food that didn’t come out of a box with a recyclable mark. Why? Because it still doesn’t feel right to eat out. As much I do want to contribute to flattening the curve, local businesses do need our support. And they are crying for help. However, I do feel guilty when I’m out and about, akin to eating a double cheeseburger with crispy bacon when your partner is a vegan evangelist. But everyone is entitled to set their own moral compass. Personal freedom versus collective responsibility—that’s probably what everyone is battling with at the moment. I just want you to be safe.

When it comes to eating out, restaurants that deliver augmented experiences gallantly will thrive in the present climate. Since everyone is yearning for a little wanderlust, and the chances of walking along the Amalfi coast are still fairly slim, the next best thing is to indulge in the joys of aperitivo hour at a recently opened, charming-looking Italian taverna. 

Last week, after signing a hypothetical liability form, I headed to bar Milano at Keong Saik Road, the hotspot for newfangled dining options. It had just rained torrentially, so I cast aside the romantic notion of dining alfresco on those cute little iron wrought chairs perched on the sidewalk. Unlike in Europe, our punishing all-year-round summer, surprise showers and passing music provided by honking vehicles make for a rather standoffish outdoor dining environment. In favour of the cooler indoors, I was rewarded with front row seats to bar Milano’s hustle and bustle.

The decor was framed like a movie set: warm, vintage lighting, a proud cockatoo plastered on ceramic tiles below semi-exposed brick wall, leg of San Daniele Ham and swollen cases of Calabrese salami dangling suggestively above the countertop. The occasional swells of fried bread and cheese marriages, interrupted by the singing of the coffee machine dispensing an espresso. Upon witnessing such a scene, you would throw caution to the wind and start with a Bloody Mary made with French-pressed San Marzano tomatoes. It was an emphatic reiteration of the usual lambasted cocktail that merely seeks to coerce thin vegetable puree into alcohol. The profoundly sweet flavour of the tomatoes grown in the volcanic soils of Mount Vesuvius along with a dash of olive brine, smoke paprika, Reyka Vodka and a pinch of whimsical, was enough to get me fired up.

Everything in bar Milano’s evening menu was all kinds of glorious. First, cleverly portioned servings of Italian snackage that put the spritz on a pedestal and an antipasti menu that would fatten up its regulars. The Olives Ascolana—olives stuffed with pork, battered and fried for an ASMR exterior crunch—quickly became my object o desire. Next came roasted king prawns and fritto misto. Despite the former being the most expensive thing on the menu, at $34, it illuminated the room upon first bite—vibrating with acidity and vigour from garlic herb butter and fermented chilli. Feeling moreish, my fingers wandered over to the platter of ‘mixed fried things’ (aka fritto misto), an irresistible mix of baby octopus, shrimp, calamari and zucchini that had been crisped to perfection. They were at the mercy of the saffron aioli and swigs of crisp, peach laced, Ciù Ciù Pecorino Offida Merlettaie wine poured into highball glasses. The choice of glassware might be quizzical to Grade A wine snobs, but it went hand in hand with the fried decadence. And driving home the message was Eurythmics’s “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)” playing in the background.

Pizza Fritta, also known as fried pizza, deserves a place at your table. Imagine fried discs of dough layered with all the good stuff from San Marzano tomatoes to wild mushrooms and shaved truffle. The ‘Mortadella’ was lip-smackingly good featuring shavings of said cheese, dollops of pistachio pesto hanging out languorously over broken up stracciatella cheese. It convinced me that if there’s a will there’s a way. For example, can’t outfit the shop with a wood-fired oven, but still want pizzas? Fry ‘em.

At 6 p.m., it was only me and another table occupied by a lone female diner dressed in a jumpsuit with one too many holes. She sought solace in a bottle of wine, while her fellow compatriots showed up in fifteen-minute windows, each arrival accompanied with a stand-and-greet ritual, bounteous laughter and clothing with exponentially less coverage. It was pageantry at its best, pleasure and pomp right at the entrance of the restaurant to stir the passing crowds seeking for a similar piece of gaiety in these times of anxiety.

With the excited chatter echoing throughout the room (the soundproofing needs to be better) and the catchy playlist of Euro hits, I felt a hint at my old life. Like I was dining under the circumstances where nothing felt amiss, except for faire la bise.