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2021-02-20 958 views
Summary: Fantastic casual Italian food and amazing Napolitano pizza in an airy, comfortable space, with terrific service and a real bar. A much-needed addition to PMQ, and a splash of life in Soho, which really needs it. Thank goodness for Gustaci!I love PMQ. Unlike Tai Kwun, it's mostly stores, not food or cultural exhibits, and as such, offers a large variety of overpriced shops, offering nominally useful to completely superfluous goods. With a focus on local producers, it's testament to HK's
I love PMQ. Unlike Tai Kwun, it's mostly stores, not food or cultural exhibits, and as such, offers a large variety of overpriced shops, offering nominally useful to completely superfluous goods. With a focus on local producers, it's testament to HK's success and development that PMQ can continue to exist in such an economically prime area. It's a great place to leisurely walk around for an afternoon, browse through the sheer randomness and ponder who actually buys this stuff.
What it has never had though is a great casual restaurant. I go to Sake Central more than I see my mother, but its menu is more for snacking or for an expensive small bites-type meal. I'll save my dislike of Sohofama for another time, and Louise (and even the previous Aberdeen Street Social) is in a different category altogether.
That has changed, with Gustaci replacing the overly-small-ticket-size-for-such-a-giant-space Taiwanese hangout Garden Meow on the ground floor of PMQ. Gustaci has converted that bubble tea cafe atmosphere into a kind of hipster industrial thing, with dim lighting, giant mirrors, and lots of partitions, but with a giant open-air seating area. Most importantly, they've brought in an Italian-made high-temperature electric pizza oven, which apparently goes up to 500 celsius, and I'll tell you, I think it's the future.
We went on the first night of dinner service in 2021 (lifting of Covid dinner restrictions Feb 18th!), and apart from a (fortuitous) mistake they made with our order, their staff were on point.
Here's the menu
Proper attention paid to pizza selection! Montanarine (Montanara) I didn't recognize - it's a hollow deepfried pizza-dough ball that's a lot lighter than you'd imagine. From the Atlas Obscura, "To make the dish, chefs drop a disc of uncooked pizza dough in hot oil for about a minute, then top the puffy fried dough with marinara and cheese. To melt the cheese and char the crust, they bake it for another minute in an oven."
Pricewise, the food is very reasonable with all pizzas but the premium ones between HKD 100-180, and appetizers/pastas in that range as well. Frankly, the pies are underpriced, given their quality and nearby competition. Desserts at $110 each seems high, but we didn't get to try them so can't comment. Alcohol-wise, it's what you'd expect from Central-Soho i.e. quite steep.
Here's what we had:
If you like this dish generally, this is a terrific example, but if like me, you find it all too oily and heavy, Gustaci's version won't change your mind. The cheese top layer should be singled out as perfectly grilled, providiing a firmness which this dish otherwise lacks - the rich cheese, tangy tomato sauce and neutral eggplant layers always end up as a single yielding bite, that while sinfully delicious, has always felt a bit gloppy to me. Eating half was still too much for me, but my first bite was unreservedly satisfying.
As an aside, I was wondering while eating this why it and other Parm (e.g. Chicken) dishes are called [...] Parmigiana given that they don't actually use a lot of Parmigiano-Reggiano. Long story, but it's probably from Naples and, yes it's because of the cheese (not because the dish is from Parma). More on the pretty interesting etymology : https://bit.ly/3u81kUZ
Rucola Salad with Parmesan
It's a nicely dressed rocket salad with fresh figs. Won't set your world on fire, but a nice change from all the heaviness. We didn't order this, but the server classily told us to keep it after we informed him.
Airy, crunchy, and without much oiliness, it’s actually pretty delicious
Some comments about the pizza
I'm not sure if this place is trying for AVPN (official certification as Neapolitan-standard pizza), but the quality is right there with the best I've tried in Japan (the only place I've tried AVPN pizza!). Their pizzaiolo is AVPN trained according to the host.
I had thought wood-fired ovens were a must but apparently not; from the AVPN International Regulations ,"The use of a gas fire or electric oven is allowed in the presence of documentation attesting to the impossibility of installing a wood-burning oven. The gas or electric oven must correspond to the certification parameters approved by the Association." The host was telling us their oven gets up to 500c, which is the temp required for proper AVPN pizza (450-500 degrees), and without heat spikes from new logs being added, it's more consistent.
I had my doubts, but I was very surprised by the results; one of the great corniciones (the ring around the outside of the pie, usually called the crust, but not in Naples) in HK; soft but not doughy, flavorful but not salty, firm with the requisite scorch marks on the outside but not burnt; simply fantastic. It's a very thin pie, in line with AVPN regulations, and it's probably best eaten with a fork and knife. Make sure you ask for their olive oil, which is fruity, full of freshness and the perfect complement with the incredible crust.
The only critique I have is the tomatoes in the base need a bit more salt. Currently they provide an acidic but nondescript complement to the pies. If they are using San Marzano tomatoes (which they should), their savory flavor should be highlighted a bit more. Having them stand out as a key ingredient (which they are) would elevate the whole product.
We asked the server for their specialties and we were recommended:
Capricciosa Pizza (HKD 145)
Full of ingredients, including plenty of my beloved olives - a lighter-flavor pie given they use vegetables and ham not sausage or pepperoni, but the mix of ingredients is tasty, and a nice contrast to the other pie we had.
Diavola Pizza (HKD 175)
Personally, a bit too heavy and spicy for me; couldn't taste the tomatoes at all; but my friend enjoyed it. Good quality spicy salami and generously distributed.
Both pies were simply fantastic, and I'm still wondering why they are so affordable. They are cheaper than all the other major Neapolitan pizza places (Babacio, Ciao Chow, definitely Motorinos), in a very cool space right in Central. The quality is as good or better, and they are generous with toppings. I really can't recommend their pizza enough.
Overall, so happy that this place was as good as it was. They offer some amazing pies, and it was cool to see an electric oven produce a Neapolitan-quality crust. The service is great and the space is inviting; the open-air seating area is going to be a HUGE hit. Great to see PMQ finally get a normal restaurant we can come back to over and over again, especially at these prices. It's also a much-needed boost to Soho, which has not weathered Covid well. A walk down Elgin is incredibly grim, with more than half the shop lots shuttered, and Staunton is now even more full of generic bar/restaurants which have no culinary value-add. Gustaci is a breath of fresh air, and I hope they succeed. Pay them a visit!