When one thinks of Italian cuisine, the usual haunts come to mind: pasta, pizza, risotto, and gelato. However, at one-MICHELIN-starred Braci, 30-year-old chef de cuisine Matteo Ponti shares that another form of Italian cooking — grigliata, which is essentially an Italian barbecue — makes up the heart and soul of the contemporary Italian restaurant.
The word Braci, when translated from Italian, means “embers”, and the foundation of the restaurant’s signature cooking style is evidenced by a Josper oven and a Japanese shichirin grill right in the centre of the intimate 20-seater open-kitchen restaurant.
Without a doubt, cooking with fire and over coals seems to be a trend that is heating up the Singapore food scene nowadays. Restaurants such as two-MICHELIN-starred Shoukouwa and newly awarded MICHELIN-starred Thevar are known for their expertise in using binchotan and tandoori styles, respectively, and Australian barbecue has left an indelible mark in Singapore’s culinary landscape.
“Italian barbecue, while not as common, is starting to become more popular in Singapore through the form of hybrid culinary concepts,” shares Ponti. “Perhaps, it’s because this style of cooking is enjoyed more within the confines of an Italian home, especially during special occasions such as Easter. I come from Trecate, which is the Italian countryside, and it has become a tradition for us to have a big family barbecue at home around April,” he says.
Inspired by wood and fire, the menu at Braci comprises seasonal ingredients that aim to uplift Italian cuisine through the most primitive form of cooking. “Back home, Easter is the main occasion when we do grigliata also because it’s the arrival of spring,” explains Ponti.
“We start to grill some sausages, followed by a lot of vegetables. We don’t miss out on the opportunity because it’s when we get the first harvest of the season. In Trecate, we are fortunate to get fresh vegetables such as asparagus and romanesco. And these vegetables, they call for charcoal, they call for fire, they call for flavour."
“Barbecue is a huge part of Italian culture. It's not one of the things Italians are widely famous for, but it's a very common way of cooking during spring.”
“Braci is a modern Italian restaurant, and we are influenced as well by how other cultures cook with fire. We have a shichirin grill, which is from Japan, and our overall goal is to build a menu that’s driven by seasonality in terms of ingredients and Italian flavours,” Ponti says.
“We like to share more of Italian food culture and history through the dishes we serve. For example, techniques such as pickling, ageing, smoking, and drying will be evident in our autumn and winter menu because that is how we preserve food in the countryside. I grew up in a very old-fashioned family, and most of the techniques I apply at Braci, I’ve learned from my mother.”
“My mother means a lot to me; she is my hero in everything. A lot of how I’ve identified myself as a chef is because of her. She was the one who brought us up with an awareness of seasonality, so we don’t go looking for strawberries during winter in Italy, for example,” Ponti fondly reminisces. “At Braci, we also take that respect for the seasons and their bounty, and elevate them in our cooking. Since we are all about fire and wood, you will find elements such as charcoal quite present as well in the menu,” he adds.
Braci's winter menu boasts a main course of venison, Delica pumpkin, and Tardivo radicchio. In this dish, the game is smoked with Alpine pine, cooked inside the Josper oven, and finished off on the shichirin grill. The Delica pumpkin that comes with it is also slow-cooked overnight in the Josper oven, until the flesh falls apart and is transformed into a purée. “The pumpkin ferments in the process and becomes slightly sour. We burn the skin and use it as well. So in this main course, we are trying to bring that flavour of fire everywhere, and in a creative manner, so you taste different, layered, and varying flavours,” Ponti says.
“At Braci, I always build up the menu based on three main concepts: seasonality, produce, and memories,” shares Ponti. “Seasonality and produce, because even though we are in Singapore, I try my best to still follow the four seasons and the produce they respectively yield. Memories are very important to me. I’ve always been around food since I was three years old, and I want to recreate those childhood memories through food as they form the link between myself and my family."
“I believe that the best personal touch you can give comes from your very own treasure of personal memories.”
Ponti shares that as part of his petit fours, a sweet called “Carrot Candy” is inspired by his mother’s carrot cake spice blend, which can be experienced in the candy's coating. “Especially in this world that we are living in, memories allow me to connect and bridge the physical distance between myself and my mother for the time being. In the same way, I try to create and provide new memories to our guests at Braci as well, whether it's through homegrown Italian dishes, familiar flavours, and pushing an ingredient's potential through the grill.”