In this vein, much as the pair wanted to honour traditional Italian dishes, putting their own stamp on things was always part of the plan.
For example, Aun explains that Italians are traditionally very garlic-averse, fearful of overwhelming ingredients’ natural flavours. Singaporeans, used to concentrated stocks and bold flavours, have no such squeamishness.
To this end, cicheti refer to a very specific kind of Italian food: small plates of appetisers and bar snacks, served in the bacaros (wine bars) of Venice. At its peak in the 1300s, Venice, as a major maritime power and trading port, was a gateway between Italy and the broader Mediterranean, and Venetian cuisine has borne the marks of this openness ever since.
“Cicheti has an Italian sound to it, but what I liked about it was that it didn’t typecast us as serious Italian food,” says Liling.
Their intention, she explains, was to carve out a brand story which took into account that they weren’t Italian. The name gave them leeway to experiment with foreign ingredients, not to mention wiggle room for branding.
“I guess it’s something we’re now starting to leverage on, but in the beginning, it was also to justify that neither of us were Italian.”
Was this something they felt they had to justify?
“In the beginning, yes! Definitely. It was something I was petrified about whenever I spoke to the media. I mean, if you look at a lot of other Italian kitchens—No Menu, Ristorante da Valentino, Pete’s Place—they all had Italian chefs behind them. We were half their age and not Italian. It was very intimidating.”
Her confession takes me by surprise; I had assumed that Singapore’s diverse culinary heritage would make diners less hung up about authenticity (at least, when it comes to non-native cuisines). The observation, however, makes sense. For years, the big names of Italian cooking in Singapore have all been, well, Italian; Beppe de Vito of Il Lido, Osvaldo Forlino of the Osvaldo Group, and the Scarpa family of the Da Paolo chain come to mind.
On top of that, the cousins had chosen a particularly unforgiving approach: a menu focused on just one kind of dish.
“We were very nervous [about opening Bar Cicheti] because it’s so focused on pasta. There just wouldn’t be much to hide behind if our pastas sucked.”