SOME of the best and most interesting Italian food can be found in small, out-of-the-way places, and Yao Minji hunts for very special eateries offering oysters, truffle pizza and bone marrow pasta.
Italian cuisine is among the world's richest and most varied and is many people's No. 1 choice. Although there are many regional cuisines, they are known for fresh, quality, seasonal ingredients and simple preparation that highlights natural flavors.
As a Mediterranean cuisine, it's considered especially heart-healthy because of the extensive use of olive oil, lots of tomatoes (containing powerful antioxidants), fresh vegetables and fruits, as well as high-protein seafood.
And red wine, a staple of the diet, is famously healthy, in moderation, because it contains antioxidants that protect the blood vessels and reduce cholesterol.
While many Chinese associate Italian cooking with pizza and pasta, it's far more diverse and interesting. It can be simple, country cooking in homey settings, and it also can be very high end.
In China, especially in big cities such as Shanghai, many Italian restaurants are luxuriously decorated and expensive. A mean for two can easily exceed 500 yuan (US$81.50), without wine.
But quite a few more modest restaurants serve equally fine food prepared by chefs who are both traditional and very creative. Some are small, tucked away and have long lines and reservation lists.
Some are opened by Italian chefs and others by non-Italian gourmets and restaurateurs with different influences - think bone marrow pizza and sea urchin bread from a Chinese American chef.
Some are quite crowded because of their popularity, and the space between tables is narrow. Waiters rush about, everyone's talking, laughing and drinking.
Shanghai Daily picks five small Italian restaurants, each offering something special.
Not many people know about quiet Jinxian Road, hidden between crowded Shaanxi Road S. and Maoming Road S., but it's famous among those in the know for small and excellent eateries.
The short street contains three tiny restaurants, each with no more than five tables, that serve some of the best Shanghainese dishes in the city.
One of the few Western eateries is Osteria, which has received excellent reviews for its fare and its oysters. Most Shanghai locals are not fond of oysters, so they are generally not featured, especially since they require a fast, quality supply chain of fresh oysters.
In Shanghai, oysters can be expensive or not so pricey, and Osteria is somewhere in between. It has gradually made its say to the top of the list for fresh, safe and flavorful oysters.
The variety of oysters, mainly from France and Canada, is as impressive as the freshness. Frequent discounts and specials, such as free drinks with an order of oysters, make the molluscs even more attractive.
The antipasti is flavorful and goes well with oysters, while the other main dishes are good but not so remarkable. It's the oysters that make this place stand out among Italian restaurants in the city.
Anfu Road is another small, quiet street introduced to almost every expatriate shortly after they arrive. Unlike Jinxian Road, which is filled with local-taste eateries, Anfu Road is like a foreign town, dotted with many small restaurants, cafes and bakeries. It's very competitive, so only the best survive.
Settebello is small but has it for all - dining area, bar and outdoor seating in a small, colorful courtyard. The warm decor and Renaissance-style paintings transform the small space into an artsy and intimate one that fits right in on the street where the Shanghai Drama Art Center is located.
The ambience contributes a lot to the rating, but food is not disappointing. The salami pizza is slightly oily, as one might expect, but meat lovers go for it. The tender pumpkin gnocchi melts in the mouth.
Pane e Vino
Tree-lined Sinan Road was built in 1912 and originally named Rue Massenet to commemorate the French musician who died that year. Today it's one of the city's hot spots in the former French concession.
It's a popular strolling area where visitors can see most of the architectural styles of the 1920s and 1930s, since many Western-style mansions were built there. It includes the former residences of Dr Sun Yat-sen and Premier Zhou Enlai.
Pane e Vino is right in the middle of the street, a few minutes' walk from the Shanghai Research Institute of Culture and History, one of the Western-style mansions that have witnessed the history of the city.
Housed in a two-story villa, Pane e Vino is larger than the other venues recommended in this article but just as welcoming, with warm yellow walls and wooden window frames.
When the sun shines through the old trees along the street into the windows, the place has a nostalgic feeling; it seems like one of Western venues in old Shanghai that only expatriates and wealthy Chinese could afford.
The truffle pizza is tender and tasty, a standout in the city with so many places offering various kinds of pizza. The truffle slices are large, the dough is crispy and the pizza is very fragrant.
Other dishes are nice though not as impressive.
The overall quality of food matches the price, and the ambience is a plus.
It was hard to decide whether to include Scarpetta, since the authenticity of the food is debatable. The Chinese-American owner has his own interpretations of Italian cuisine, but I respect his attention to detail, presentation and some of his innovative adaptations, such as the signature bone marrow pizza.
It's rare to see bone marrow on the menu in Western restaurants in the city, even rarer to see it in a pasta dish. But here it is. The bone marrow adds spice to the meat sauce, making the taste more exciting than a typical meat sauce. Some diners may find it a bit oily.
Sea urchin bread is plentiful and fresh. The pizza crust is somewhere between thin and thick, making it unconventional and interesting.
On quiet Mengzi Road, Top Chef offers reasonably priced steak and tenderloin to satisfy meat lovers. Overall, the taste of starters and soups outweighs the entrees. The seafood soup and avocado salad are must-tries.