Va Bene, all right

The most pleasant surprise in Shanghai is the restaurant of twentysomething chef Natalino Ambra from Prato

18-02-2014
Scallops and caviar by 24-year-old chef Natalino A

Scallops and caviar by 24-year-old chef Natalino Ambra, from Prato, solidly at the helm of restaurant Va Bene in Shanghai, in the Xintiandi neighbourhood, tel. +86.21.63112211. Among the most pleasant surprises in town

It is so true that the world has changed. Once Chinese people went to find their fortune in Prato, now it is someone from Prato who becomes prominent in Shanghai. Let’s move in order, though. 2013 ended a short while ago and it’s time for some considerations. Culinary ones, that is. In the last episodes we’ve spoken of famous and established chefs, today, with the new Chinese year we want to linger on a surprise. In particular, we were struck by the quality leap made by 24-year-old chef Natalino Ambra, from Prato, who, since last July, is doing very well at Va Bene (in omina nomen) in Shanghai, one of the most established and awarded Italian restaurants in China – and certainly the most long-lived (12 years).

Natalino Ambra, a young globetrotter

Natalino Ambra, a young globetrotter

Ambra is precocious, a bit of a daredevil, as brave as a GP biker (perhaps he’s not yet a Valentino Rossi but he’s certainly a Marco Melandri, who he vaguely recalls, thanks to his thin frame and his crew cut): coming from a family of workmen, from the Tuscany that works hard, without any culinary roots in the family, at 7 he starts to approach cooking by himself: «At home, my mother didn’t have a car to take me out so I began to prepare things that I liked by myself, since I was small». Hence the choice of attending catering school in Montecatini, the first “summer seasons” as a student, and once he had earned his diploma, he went straight to Castiglion del Bosco, and worked in Massimo Ferragamo’s restaurant, inside the Golf Club Resort, in the midst of the Brunello vineyards.

After two years of experience, mostly in Tuscany, he’s called for the opening of the Armani Hotel restaurant in Dubai, where he ends up staying for 2 years. The experience in Dubai is fascinating but he feels this city in the Emirates is tight for him and, in 2012, at 23, he arrives in Shanghai. He changes a couple of restaurants until he is noticed by chef Corrado Michelazzo, once the chef at Va Bene, who puts him in the wise hands of restaurant manager Daniele Baldo – 29-year-old from Bibbione, with a long experience with the Cipriani family, between Harry’s Bar in Venice and Downtown in London – who’s already taking care a young-looking revamp of the restaurant. «The idea at Va Bene is always that of keeping the standard high, but with a wave of fresh air. We want to offer a young-style fine dining, something that reassures and surprises you at the same time… indeed, it is possible. Think of Anthony Genovese’s Pagliaccio in Rome».

Casoncelli filled with parmigiano and dark sauce broth

Casoncelli filled with parmigiano and dark sauce broth

This is how – as in a perfect showbiz couple – on one side there is Baldo, with his impeccable Brit baronet air, who very soon will convert the second floor of Va Bene into a cocktail bar full of surprises. Meanwhile Ambra with his daredevil approach will maintain traditional dishes. The cuisine is in fact the classic Italian one, focused on attention to flavours, one in which the garnish never overshadows the protagonist, but with some soft fusion-hints at Asian or other cuisines: the extremely Italian turbot, for instance, is served with bok choi leaves and lime foam; the Crab ravioli have a lemongrass and lime zest sauce; the super French foie gras and celeriac are matched with Italian hazelnuts and a coffee reduction. And the Italian spirit triumphs in the Pappardelle with ossobuco sauce, in the warm salad with burrata cheese from Andria and in the excellent “Autumn in Shanghai” dessert.

Va Bene is in Xintiandi, the posh neighbourhood where to have fun in Shanghai and a tasting menu costs 668 rmb (around 80 euros).


Sections

China Grill

Tasty reports from China and the Far East from our collaborator Claudio Grillenzoni