With sleek stainless steel accents, white tiled walls and a soft electric glow emanating from baubles of frosted glass, Fiume is a marked departure from the hushed earthy tones of secluded hutong trattoria Mercante. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer a panorama overlooking the Liangma River, and make for an open, modern vista in contrast with the Old World feel of Mercante’s rustic furniture and back-alley location. Thankfully, the home-style Italian dishes and authentic favours that put Mercante on the map have survived the journey – and have found new life in the more spacious and contemporary setting.
The menu is simple and focused – offerings are divided into antipasti, primi, secondi and dolce. The courses have been masterfully crafted to complement each other, and, as they’re a little on the small side, do as the Italians do and order one or two from each section.
The cold cut platter, including a 24-month Parmigiano Reggiano, offers hand-cut ham marbled with buttery fat, hints of hazelnut and with a salty smooth fnish, alongside salami with hard, nutty Parmesan fnishes with a mild peppery spice.
The baccala – pieces of salted cod that have been soaked in milk, battered and fried – really steal the frst act. As hardened fsh and chip enthusiasts, we were sceptical about the salte nature of our beloved cod. Sometimes it’s good to be wrong – the fesh is toothsome and chewy while the crisp golden batter locks in a hearty crunch. A side of fresh carrot puree adds an earthiness and cooling affect that softens the fried morsels.
From the primi, the potato gnocchi with boar in porcini ragu offers chewy nuggets of starchy pasta blanketed in blood-red sauce – prepare for the silence induced only by moments of true pasta nirvana. Sweet tomato, savoury boar and nutty porcini washed down with a sip of Sicilian La Segreta (278RMB per bottle) are a bacchanalian delight. The triangoli with stewed donkey will keep you talking through to the end of the bottle. The mild favour of tender donkey pairs surprisingly well with the fresh pasta.
The portions, although deeply satisfying, do not overwhelm the palate with over-seasoning, nor the belly with richness, leaving plenty of room for the secondi. The organic fillet of beef with roasted vegetables is a supple medallion of beefy goodness. The organic meat is lean and best on the rare side as grilled too long it loses its carnal richness.
The roasted eel with 30-year-old traditional balsamic vinegar from Reggio Emilia, famed for its superior blends, paired with soft polenta is less exciting. The tender white fesh of the eel is well cooked but has a slightly muddy favour. The glaze is reminiscent of that used for Japanese unagi (grilled eel), with an added fruitiness from the aged balsamic vinegar. The soft polenta is too runny and, without contributing much favour, leaves the plate looking and tasting fat.
Panna cotta with a raspberry and balsamic vinegar topping erases the memory of the eel. A silky dome of pure white, marked only by a drizzle of red, the creamy sweetness is cut by the tang of vinegar, berries and occasional sips of fresh moka- brewed coffee. Try to restrain the desire to order an encore or two.
From behind the bar, you can expect expertly prepared aperitifs and a good selection of Italian wines at modest prices (by the glass from 50RMB). Fear not, wine novices – recommendations are freely given with refreshing honesty that won’t leave your head spinning or your wallet empty. They also feature some bottles that will stand up to even the staunchest connoisseurs.
Just like this city we call home, Fiume is an exciting crossroads between traditional favours and contemporary styles. Maybe that’s why we love it so much.