Italian Cuisine right out of Seoul: Five places providing real Italian gastronomy
Restaurants are not just about food anymore. With a lifestyle that is becoming more and more fast paced, where we hardly have time to feel, relax, and enjoy the pleasure of spending time out, eating, and socializing has become some sort of luxury.
You can buy food almost everywhere, especially in a city like Seoul, but sharing good food and a great time with the people you value has become scarce, something often reserved only for special occasions. This is not only due to the busy lives of us customers, but also by how many restaurants seem eager to be quick and efficient, sometimes, maybe, a little bit too quick.
Dining can represent not just food but an experience and good memories. Sadly not all places are able to provide the experience of delicious food made with care, accompanied by good service and a lovely ambiance to share with your friends and family. Succeeding in this difficult quest is what this new section is about: finding restaurants that provide an experience.
Korea has delicious food, but we often can crave different cuisines. Sadly, it is not always easy to find dishes from different countries that have an authentic taste without having changed to accomodate the local palate. To help you pin down some good locations, this month we are doing a run down on the top spots that were able to conquer our heart and palate through the real taste of Italy.
If Italian cuisine is something that you have been looking for, quickly add these spots to your #wanted list to go get some real Italian flavor. I found them to be great choices if you are curious to test some new tasty dishes in a lovely setting, or if you have never tried traditional Italian cuisine and want to check out the real deal. After much research and tries hand in hand with an Italian foodie friend of mine, these are our chosen spots which you can visit to experience all the pleasures of great dishes.
Salon de Joo
Salon de Joo is becoming quite a popular spot, having only just opened in November. After our visit, the reason behind its quick success was no surprise, having tasted the drop-dead delicious food while interacting with the lovely couple running the magic behind the scenes.
Becky and Emilio met in Australia, where they worked in hostelry for around ten years. Now married and with two lovely daughters, they decided at the end of last year to move back to Korea and open their own restaurant. Salon de Joo, which they have been running since the end of last autumn.
Emilio controls the kitchen making beautiful dishes filled with both flavor and the love for cooking that he learned in childhood from his nonna (grandma in Italian). Becky receives and takes care of their customers to make them feel comfortable, as if they were guests in their own house.
Welcomed with sincere smiles, we enjoyed some cocktails while waiting for the dishes. Our choice was the classic and delicious Italian Aperol Spritz (one of my favorite drinks) and one of Becky´s cocktail specialities made with prosecco. A curated selection of wine choices are also available alongside the freshly made cocktails, which makes Salon de Joo a frequent destination for regulars to not only grab a bite but also have a drink after work. While we were enjoying our drink, Emilio was working among the fires, cooking us some serious food wonders.
We started with some traditional caponata, accompanied by a lovely, crunchy focaccia. Caponata is a popular dish that comes from the south of Italy, but it is cooked very differently depending on the region. Emilio´s caponata follows his nonna’s recipe, a sweet and sour mix of zucchini and eggplant only eaten in the Sicilian capital of Palermo. If you like healthy but delicious dishes, crunchy bread, and the slight flavor of spices like rosemary, this appetizer will satisfy all your needs.
The caponata was followed by one of Emilio´s creations, a mix of all the skills that he has acquired everywhere he has lived and worked,”. A dish made with organic pasta handmade in Sicily by a special artisan, containing both truffle for flavor and truffle oil to also enhance the fragrance of the dish. And accompanied by a perfectly poached egg that Emilio personally cuts and mixes at the table for each customer. A wonderful delicacy definitely worth the visit, one which as Emilio himself explained he used to be laughed at when serving it to Italians, only to receive an empty dish back with no signs of ever containing food. Which happened to be exactly how we returned ours as well.
“Food is meant to nourish and be enjoyed, not just look pretty.”
The last dish was a creation not on the menu, which is something that Emilio at times does for regular customers when asked, if he and Becky have pinned down the clients taste and preferences. He creates special dishes to break down the barrier in between the concept of perceived italian and real italian food, but also the barrier in which restaurants and clients remain disconnected, building some new experiences through his special dishes. And bringing with this one a little bit of the taste of home through the flavor of vongole (clams), saffron, dark olives, and cherry tomatoes to give some freshness to the dish.
Every single one of the dishes had a special taste and character, just like Salon de Joo itself. It is a place in which Emilio and Becky make daily great efforts to make the clients feel at home and comfortable, while providing good ingredients no matter the cost since they do not want to sacrifice taste and health for profit.
They search for beauty in imperfections because “food is meant to nourish and be enjoyed, not just look pretty.”
Salon de Joo
Address: Songpagu Bangidong 165-2 – 서울 송파구 방이동 165-2
Phone Number: 02-420-9523
Opening hours: 11:30 – until late
Convertor might not be what you’d expect when reading about experiencing real Italian food, especially when it described as “Milano Fast Food,” but the reality is that they provide very authentic focaccia from Liguria, a region located in the north-eastern part of Italy. How did I know about this, you might ask? Because my Italian friend who comes exactly from this region, was the one recommending this spot.
Convertor is an open space, not a sit-down restaurant to have a special dinner, but the quality of the food is still outstanding. If you are searching for a place to have some good, filling food on the go, grab some take out, or just meet up with friends and have an Italian style aperitivo, this is your spot.
“He was surprised at how food that is eaten on the go could be so fresh, and he wished more Koreans could try this type of food”
For those of you that might not know, aperitivo is a very common tradition in certain European countries such as Italy, France, and Spain. A very appreciated part of the culture in which you meet socially to have a conversation while grabbing some light drinks and some food in between regular meals. It can be done before lunch, but also before dinner or even before going out on the town. In Convertor, you can grab some extremely delicious Aperol Spritz and get some focaccia that they can cut for you if it is to share, to experience your own Italian apero among friends.
Owner Gun Hyoung Kim, and his team make very authentic focaccia with homemade dough that is crispy on the outside but airy on the inside. Do not let the appearance fool you; this is focaccia, not pizza, so the taste will be very different, but if you enjoy European-style bread, you will most likely adore this dish.
You might be wondering how a Korean and not an Italian was the one coming up with the idea of opening up such a place… And so was I, so I asked. Apparently the idea came during his first trip to Milan in which Gun Hyoung tried focaccia for the first time. He found it delicious but also healthy since most ingredients are always fresh and homemade. He was surprised at how food that is eaten on the go could be so fresh, and he wished more Koreans could try this type of food. So he decided to open his own place to bring to Korea a different style of “fast food.”
We had two Spritzes and two focaccias, one with mortadela, pistachios and mozzarella cheese, and the other with prosciutto di parma and sun-dried tomatoes. The dough was airy and light but also crunchy on outside, the tomato sauce was fresh and had a good blend of herbs, and the cheese, even though not fully 100% Italian was still very delicious, especially the grilled parts that were also slightly crunchy. If you want to try other Italian variations, you also have a mushroom version with truffle oil and – my favorite out of them all, and which I took to go – the margarita.
Convertor may have one or two Koreanized dishes, but the rest is pretty darn real. The Spritz was especially delicious and one slice of focaccia was enough to make you full and I am no light eater. The ingredients were fresh and I could see them prepare everything in front of my eyes from scratch, from the bread to the toppings, and with much care. The bread, probably my favorite part, was another level. If you like the type of traditional pizza bread made in the oven, you will very much enjoy this dish. So, buon appetito!
Address: Gangnamdaero 156 gil 12 – 서울시 강남대로 156길 12 1층
Phone Number: 02.545.3534
Opening Hours: 11:30am – 11:00pm [Break: 4:30 – 6:00 pm]
Ciuri Ciuri is another Italian spot that brings Sicilian cuisine right to Sangsu, Seoul. Filled with detailed Sicilian charms and accessories and run by Enrico and Fiore (“flower” in Italian). A spot that even when so far from italy, has the power to transport you right into Europe after you cross its doors. Its name which means “Flowers Flowers”, in Sicilian dialect, could be a coincidence or perhaps a love gesture, towards Fiore, the female chef on this lovely kitchen duo.
Enrico from Rome and Fiore from Sicily decided to open this restaurant a couple of years back to bring to the public traditional Sicilian food in the hopes of not only accepting a new challenge in their life, but also to give a wider representation of Italy, their gastronomy and culture that is often hidden or stereotyped. Italy, along with other southern European countries, has a very rich tradition in terms of food, with its cuisine changing quite drastically from city to city not only in terms of dishes but also in how those dishes are prepared.
Food in countries like Italy, France, or Spain is a huge part of the culture and a major source of happiness, but can also at times generate slight pettiness in terms of competition. We all take pride in our traditional food, and everyone wants their food culture to be appreciated. Even though Fiore and Enrico come from completely different areas with very different gastronomies, they decided to open a Sicilian restaurant due to the richness and variety that they both found in Sicilian cuisine. They have since then received three prestigious Gambero Rosso awards, which are similar to Michelin stars, not only for their food but also for creating awareness of the diversity of Italian cuisine.
We started with arancini, one of my most loved, but not so well known Italian dishes. Arancini is basically rice croquettes filled with different ingredients. We tried out the ragu and ham and cheese arancini. Both were delicious but, as expected, the one filled with classical ragu (the type of sauce or filling used in plates like bolognese or lasagna) conquered my heart. Just a heads up that real ragu contains green peas, so you don’t get super confused while eating it.
The arancini was followed by broccoli and anchovy pasta with traditional Sicilian focaccia bread topped with cheese and caramelized onion that you can dip into the pasta sauce, but also extremely delicious by itself as well. Enrico and Fiore also prepared us some dishes that differed from the traditional Italian stereotype: traditional Italian sausage and baccalá a la isolana, which is cod fish with a homemade sauce of tomato and capers. Both were delicious and definitely different from the usual pasta and pizza that we might be used to.
The star of the visit for those with a sweet tooth will be the homemade cannoli, crunchy, sweet, savory, creamy and delicate at the same time. A definitely must try even if you, like myself, do not tend to enjoy desserts that much.
Also extra information, the clientele at Ciuri Ciuri is apparently quite diverse because we might or might have not be sitting in front of a very well-known Korean celebrity and we might or might have not have taken his picture with one of his fans. Which you might also be if you enjoy all time Korean movie classics.
“Enrico and Fiore bring to the public traditional Sicilian food in the hopes of not only accepting a new challenge in their life, but also to give a wider representation of Italy.”
Ciuri Ciuri pictures taken by Manon Thore
Address: Mapogu Sangsudong 314-3 2 floor – 서울특별시 마포구 상수동 314-3 2층
Phone Number: 02-749-9996
Al Choc is an osteria located in Yeonamdong. An osteria is similar to a restaurant but tends to be more relaxed, usually chosen spots to have a drink and a bite to eat, something similar to a French bistro or a British pub, but Italian-style.
The food can still be delicious, but will tend to be simpler dishes compared to fancier restaurants. Osterias usually have all the classic dishes that are the base of Italian cuisine, plus whatever the chef decides to incorporate, which could be anything from a daily menu with changing specials, to the chef’s own creations.
“Pushed by destiny or mere coincidence, Marco and his associates decided to jump into the pool and create their new dream together opening a restaurant in Korea.”
Osteria Al Choc opened in the autumn of 2017, and it seems that Al Choc and Marco, the co-owner and chef, were meant to be. Marco, who is originally from the surroundings of Venice, had been living and working in Asia for quite some time, including countries such as China and Singapore. He had never been to Korea, but decided to come and visit after a close friend suggested it.
When he came out to Korea to test the waters, he ended up by chance living in front of Casa di Noa, a former also Italian restaurant, the now Al Choc, whose owner was going to move to Jeju Island. Pushed by destiny or mere coincidence, Marco and his associates decided to jump into the pool and create their new dream together in Korea.
As for the food, Marco tries to stick to his roots in his cooking while also trying to look at his customers with a clear mind in order to adapt what he has learned until now, because even if Korea is part of Asia in Marco’s eyes, “Korea is not just Asia, Korea is just Korea.” As a result, he estimates that about sixty percent of his dishes seek to enhance the Korean taste experience while he keeps the extra forty percent to experiment and introduce more Italian dishes in his daily specials and his new personal creations.
Lovely Roman-style arancini with homemade tomato sauce, classic caponata with burrata cheese served with bread and a side of focaccia, fragrant truffle gnocchi, and traditional lasagna were some of the dishes that we enjoyed during our visit. All of them are dishes that an osteria cannot be without; being along with pizza and pasta, the cornerstones of Italian cuisine. But what makes Al Choc special is not only the traditional dishes but the favorite dish among many of the Italian customers and the chef himself: calamari fritti. This is a dish of fried calamari served with only a slice of lemon and some dipping sauce, but that is nevertheless able to still melt your heart.
If you have a sweet tooth you might be happy to know that Al Choc also has traditional Italian desserts such as panna cotta and tiramisu, but also newer touches such as warm chocolate and pecan nuts topped with a soft vanilla ice cream. Great food, desserts, and a variety of beverages and wine, are all things that you would be able to enjoy in the soft ambiance, perfect to grab a drink and have a tasty bite while trying some of their different specials.
Address: Yeonnamdong 257-8 – 서울특별시 마포구 연남동 257-8
Phone Number: 02-3142-1108
Spark, located in Apgujeong Rodeo, was my last visit on our trip to find the real taste of Italy. Chef and painter Shawn Park welcomed us on the day of our visit. The restaurant is located in one of the fancier areas of Seoul and has an ambiance worth checking out, exuding a special charm between fancy and rustic and incorporating a traditional European aesthetic. Art is everywhere, from the walls to the menus and all painted by Shawn himself.
The Korean expression “예술이다” has a similar meaning to “being a work of art” and it is used to describe many things, from beauty to music. I honestly could not find a better world to describe the experience of visiting this place. Art is everywhere, especially in the food.
“You can fall in love through a spark, and that is exactly the feeling that he aspires to provide through his dishes.”
Opening in November 2016, Spark gets its name from combining the name of the chef and owner (S. Park), a name not only meant to be a smart game of words but also to represent the experience that Shawn would like to deliver to his customers. Spark can have many meanings, because many things start with a spark, for example you can fall in love through a spark, and that is exactly the feeling that he aspires to provide through his dishes.
The soft light made it difficult to take beautiful pictures of the delicious dishes, but it made the interview with Shawn more interesting when he talked about his story. He is a Korean chef who makes very Italian food with his own slight twist and who loves cooking because, similar to when painting, when he cooks he can always get out of it what he puts in. He gave me a very different answer to what most chefs tell me when asked why he loves to cook, responding that what he loves the most is knowing that, as long as he puts in the effort and passion, he can make what he feels, and that he can always learn how to make what he wants to make.
With this is a practical approach filled with passion; he talks about how he still wants to give as much back to his customers as he can, not only due to the price they pay for their food, but because he wants to make and deliver food with quality and make it accessible to everyone. He wants to help the industry grow by creating opportunities for people to enjoy eating outside without having to worry so much about the price point, making delicious and good food available to everyone.
Cooking Italian food for him is not only about sticking to tradition and keeping its roots and origins, but also, alike with Italians, about not being afraid or hesitant of bringing something new or creative to the table. This is reflected in his menu that we truly enjoyed. Carpaccio with mushrooms, dark olive powder, and olive oil to start, followed by spicy nduja pasta and risotto with abalone and seafood ragù sauce.
I wouldn’t be able to tell you which dish was my favorite: the delicate carpaccio, the pasta made with nduja, an Italian spicy sausage that Shawn made himself but my Italian friend was completely astonished by and who could not believe it was not imported from his beloved country, or the delicious risotto with a flavor so delicate yet so complex that it kept on getting better with every bite.
On my quest to find genuine Italian taste a lot of the food was extremely delicious, but I truly got goosebumps when eating something in exactly three spots, and Spark was one of them, a place where I got to experience it through every dish.
Address: Sinsadong 656-7 – 신사동 656-7
Phone Number: 02-543-8986
Editor: Lorena Jiménez
For: Groove Magazine Feb Issue
That was all for today on Italian food in Seoul if you are curious, here you can always check some more of my printed articles.