August 13, 2011

Make your Sicilian selection


By Charley Bolding-Smith

Le Duo delivers the flavours of Italy in the way that only a true ristorante can.

Le Duo’s calamari was “deep-fried with the deftest touch”.
It was when the barang owner of a local, well-regarded eatery asked me to drop off a bowl of home-cooked spaghetti that the point hit home. Given the abundance of noodles in this chosen corner of Southeast Asia, it’s ironic to find oneself hankering after pasta. However much one appreciates the local cuisine – or whatever grub your restaurant offers – at some point the thoughts of the expat drift to the food of Italy, and our gastronomic juices demand a return there. Today we’re in the mood for the comfort and conviviality that only a real Italian ristorante can supply. So Le Duo (La Potenza) is an obvious candidate.

Enter the restaurant directly from the street and you’ll find the huge ceiling canopy, which imitates Michelangelo’s roof of the Sistine Chapel, a show stealer. The fastidious will consider this giant tea towel vulgar, but to the less discriminating it’s a glorious display of art, crowning the covered courtyard. The venue is spacious, sprawling itself around the central swimming pool. You can dine al fresco under the covered courtyard, or in a separate air-conditioned (and more formal) dining room. The pink and terracotta paintwork, the buzz of amused conversation, and the muted cries of children frolicking in the pool effortlessly evoke happy reveries of Italy. Le Duo doesn’t try too hard. Maybe that’s the secret.

That’s not to say that service isn’t attentive. Under the supervisory eyes of owner Luigi Savarino it needs to be. In the true tradition of Italian restaurateurs, Luigi drifts between tables, greeting guests and suggesting choices to suit their palate. It’s a nice touch: the menu offers classic cucina italiana – pizza, insalata, calamari, ossobuco, saltimbocca, tagliata, gamberoni – but, as usual, the real action is on the specials board, which frequently features dishes influenced by Luigi’s Sicilian birthplace.

From the appetisers, pasta e fagioli (pasta, pancetta and white bean soup, $4.50) fell into the “meal in itself” category of soup. The generous use of pancetta (an addition to this traditionally meatless dish) provided a mellowness to the broth, to which spaghetti and beans added heft. Not for those wanting of appetite.

Our other starter, calamari fritti alle mandorle (deep-fried squid with almonds and two sauces, $3.75) was a terrific variation of the Mediterranean classic. Who of us can’t recall chewy, overcooked squid, more reminiscent of rubber bands than cephalopod? Well, not here: the calamari was deep-fried with the deftest touch, its almond and breadcrumbed jacket lightweight. It was pleasantly complimented by the tzatziki and aioli dipping sauces, and represented excellent value for money. Such generosity of spirit was also evident in the calzone, ordered as part of the lunchtime special (pizza or panini, beer or coffee or soft drink, and ice cream, $6) which was stuffed – rather than filled – with mortadella, ham, basil and egg. The wood-fired pizzas are exemplars of the sort ($4.50-$6.50 small/$5.00-$8.00 large). Raviole di ricotta e spinachi (ravioli stuffed with spinach, ricotta, cream, basil and pine nuts, $5.75) also proved fit for purpose, although muted in flavour.

Downsides? Maybe the fettuccine in the bosiate (fatte a mano) al pesto sugo di polpi (homemade Sicilian pasta with special pesto and minced octopus, $7.50 from the specials board) was a fraction too thick (although nicely al dente). It made no difference to enjoyment of the dish, which featured finely sliced – rather than minced – octopus, again perfectly cooked so that it remained tender to the bite. But I was undecided about the homemade lasagne with meat ($7.50), the taste notes of which seemed sweet rather than savoury, and somewhat lacking in the essential tomato sauce. However, the sizeable serving and comfort offered by the dish mean that I intend a return to it in the future to continue my deliberations.

We stuck to beer and soft drinks, but the wine list looks interesting, containing some corkers from Italy (including Sicily, of course) France and South America.

Relaxing at the end of the meal with gelato for dessert ($2 a scoop) and an espresso ($1.50 – a special mention, by the way, for the house biscotti), it felt satisfying to have been transported briefly to Italy, or, more precisely, perhaps, to Luigi’s beloved Sicily. The short journey to Street 228 is worthwhile – ultimately it is the authenticity of the dining experience, as much as the great food, which makes Le Duo a necessary sojourn for the Italian food aficionado.

Le Duo (La Potenza) is located at #17 Street 228, Phnom Penh. Tel: 012 342 921/023 991 906.


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