In many ways, it isn’t all that difficult to see how Giuseppe Lioce ended up becoming a chef. Growing up in his hometown of Bari in south Italy, Lioce spent a considerable amount of time in his grandmother’s restaurant (which was founded in 1925 by his great-grandmother). Under his grandmother’s tutelage, he learnt how to make south Italian pasta like cavatelli and oriechette and quickly fell under the spell of food.
“None of the men in my family are chefs – everyone is involved in different activities – some are producing wine and some are in construction. So everyone thought I would be an architect or something like that. But I really enjoyed working with my grandmother,” says Lioce. When he was 14, Lioce enrolled in a hospitality management school in Bari and took on a series of jobs in restaurants in his hometown.
“My father actually went to his friends in the restaurants and said, ‘Make my son’s life very difficult!’ So I actually spent two or three years washing dishes,” he says, laughing.
After attaining his diploma, Lioce travelled to north Italy, where he learnt how to make north Italian dishes. From there, he moved to London where he worked in a five-star hotel. In his early 20s, he worked at the famed El Olivo in Mallorca, Spain, helmed by seasoned chef Guillerme Mendez (whom he describes as his second mentor, after his grandmother). By 26, he was the executive chef at a five-star hotel in Spain, a career high that he continued with stints in Australia and five-star hotels in India before arriving in Malaysia, where he now helms Nero Nero, an Italian restaurant in DC Mall.
“At Nero Nero, we are very flexible. We are not traditional, we are not fine-dining, we are somewhere in between. But we want to make sure that all the guests have a good experience,” says Lioce.
And in many ways, this homey feel is something you’ll detect almost as soon as you walk into the rooftop restaurant, as Lioce often stands near the entrance to greet customers with his wide, disarming smile. This home-hewn feeling extends to the food, which is nearly totally made in-house, from the pastas and breads to the sauces and desserts. In fact, you might actually have the pleasure of watching chefs make fresh pasta right in front of you, as there is an open work station near the entrance.
Start your meal at Nero Nero with an entree like the Panzerotti (RM33++), or in Lioce’s words, “a street food that is basically Italian curry puff”. The concoction is essentially mini calzone stuffed with mozzarella, tomato sauce and fresh basil, served on a base of bell peppers and almond sauce. The little doughy triangle serves up pure pleasure, with an exterior that is satisfyingly crispy and a soft interior that yields bursts of cheesy, tomatoey goodness. Next up, try the satisfaction-guaranteed Parmigiana di Zucchini (RM35++) which is made up of layers of green zucchini stuffed with mozzarella, parmesan and basil. The parcels are reminiscent of lasagne, except without the carbs. The zucchini is tender and oh-so luscious and the cheese is crusty in some parts and gooey and melty in others. If you’re looking for a slice of hedonism, look no further, folks.
For something a little lighter, try the Burrata (RM39++, main image, top). The cheese imported from Puglia is served on a base of basil-marinated roasted cherry tomatoes, crumbled Sardinia bread and extra virgin olive oil. The burrata is soft as spun silk and addictive, while the tomatoes and olive oil serve as zesty supporting acts to the all-hail-the-queen cheese.
From the pasta options, have a go at the homemade north Italian Tortellacci all’ Anatra (RM68++) which features circular pasta pockets stuffed with duck mince and ricotta, served with a sage and butter sauce and duck reduction. “When I went to work in north Italy at 18, one young lady who was 91 at the time taught me how to make this pasta. She told me the story of how in the 1930s, people didn’t have money to buy rings, so the ladies made these ring-shaped pastas and told the men, ‘You can marry me now!’” says Lioce.
Having heard the story, there’s always the slight possibility that the meal will not live up to this charming tale. But in this case, it totally does. The pasta is soft and tender with a good bite and breaks open to reveal flavourful duck meat that is pronounced but not overwhelming. The butter and sage sauce and duck reduction offer additional nutty, savoury nuances that ably complement this perfectly-executed meal.
Do not even contemplate leaving Nero Nero without trying the Cavatelli alla Marinara (RM68++) which is made up of the homemade pasta shells that Lioce’s grandmother taught him how to make, as well as clams, calamari and prawns in a cherry tomato sauce. The pasta is cooked in seawater from Italy as well as fish stock and white wine. It is a seductive temptress – pillowy soft little shells that have soaked up every ounce of the sauce, so that each mouthful is the equivalent of flavour-packed bombs.
From the pizza options, try the Pizza Nero Nero (RM60++) which has an interesting flavour combination in the form of gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and imported truffle honey. The pizza dough at Nero Nero is made using – get this – Aqua Panna water as Lioce believes Italian water helps the 42-hour fermentation process. And perhaps it does make a difference, because the pizza at Nero Nero is fantastic – crispy and puffed on its outer edges and thin in the middle.
From the mains selection, try the Stracotto d’Agnello (RM120++) or Australian lamb shank marinated overnight in herbs and then slow-cooked for 24 hours in Primitivo wine (a full-bodied wine, which is what Lioce’s family produces) and some vegetables. All that slow-cooking has resulted in pliable, melt-in-the-mouth lamb that falls apart at the slightest inclination and has a rich alcoholic undercurrent that proves instantly appealing.
Nero Nero has a wide array of desserts to satiate the sweet-toothed. Try the Miellefoglie (RM35++), which features layers of crunchy puff pastry interspersed with cloudy, zesty lemon custard and berries, and served with a cold vanilla gelato.
At the end of a meal at Nero Nero, you’ll feel incredibly full (that’s a given), a lot poorer (meals here are on the higher end) but also a little like you’ve been given a delicious vicarious tour of the many experiences that have enriched Lioce’s life. “For me, this is coming from the origin – from my grandmother. But I am not cooking like my grandmother, I am using my skills and knowledge but mixed with my background,” he says.
Level 3, DC Mall
6, Jalan Damanlela
50490 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-2011 3811
Open Monday to Friday: Noon to 3.30pm (lunch); 3.30pm to 6pm (pizza & dessert); 6pm to 10pm (dinner); Saturday & Sunday: Noon to 10pm