Italian restaurant Aria in Hong Kong has a new chef, Angelo Vecchio, who is on a quest to expose locals to Italy’s biodiversity. Chef Vecchio’s love of food began in his childhood province, Lecce, in southern Italy. Many Michelin-starred restaurants and countries later, including Pagliaccio in Rome and Sketch in London, he landed in Beijing, where he opened the Italian restaurant Alba as Head Chef. His stint in Hong Kong began in 2011, and he now delights locals with modern twists on classic Italian dishes.
Previously helmed by Chef Andrea Zamboni, Aria has begun a new chapter. Customers and critics know the Italian ristorante located in Central for its care in reinventing family-style recipes. The introduction of new flavors and preparations packaged in a familiar dish unlocked tentative taste buds. Each riff on the classics solidifies Aria’s status as one of the best Italian restaurants in Asia’s dense metropolis.
Upon its 2020 introduction to the competitive restaurant scene in Hong Kong, customers flocked to Aria and its opulent location on the 24th floor of California Tower. Like many of the best restaurants and bars located in Central, Aria boasts a coveted view and a bright interior. The intricate modern chandeliers, crown molding and rich velvet make the dining area seem designed for European royalty.
Chef Vecchio and biodiversity
“One of the main reasons [I became a chef] was my family,” says Chef Vecchio. “I think the real reason was I liked cooking, and I always had an interest in food and ingredients. Food and beverage has always been a growing industry. It was actually easy to pick it up.
“I would say probably in the last 20 years, there’s been a boom in technology that helps chefs in their role. The kitchen requires a lot of effort. Chefs had a lot of hours, there were a lot of things you needed to compromise, it was a lot of different jobs. Nowadays there’s a lot of technology that helps our lives. We can get the job done with less effort and more precision.”
Despite new technological developments to lessen the burdens of a chef, taking over Aria poses a risk, especially in a city constantly warring for space. The densely populated metropolis with soaring rent prices brews a cutthroat environment for budding restaurants. “I always think that opening a restaurant is much easier than taking over for somebody else,” says Chef Vecchio. “It’s already unique and headed in a certain direction. It’s a bit challenging in this way.”
Aria’s menu showcases dishes from throughout Italy, featuring international elements inspired by Chef Vecchio’s memories and gustatory experiences of home. He scorns the popular but distilled and ultimately inaccurate idea of Italian food.
“People I think confuse Italian [cuisine] for just pizza and pasta,” says Vecchio. “It’s very diminutive. We have to deal with this shadow of people always talking about pizza and spaghetti. It’s very very bad. It’s like saying Japanese food is all about sushi and sashimi.”
Most Italian restaurants located in foreign countries play it safe in order to keep business going. Comfort dishes like pizza and spaghetti sell, but Chef Vecchio wants to introduce locals to Italy’s wealth of ingredients and varying regional dishes.
“Italy is known for its biodiversity,” says Chef Vecchio. “We have a lot of different animals and vegetables … So what I want to do is focus on that biodiversity. I would like to bring to Hong Kong food that people aren’t really familiar with. I want to take the risk to bring over what is actually Italian.
“My goal is to keep a modern array of Italian dishes, so that customers are familiar with the dish, but it’s presented and made in a different way. I don’t want to go to the extreme. Just a different approach.”
After working in restaurants in Europe and China, Hong Kong seems an obvious choice given its reputation as Asia’s hub for food and beverage. But Chef Vecchio’s main attraction to Hong Kong isn’t necessarily its reputation so much as the accessibility.
“I like Hong Kong for one main reason: it’s a very open market,” explains Chef Vecchio. “It’s a nice playground for a chef because you can basically get everything from everywhere … It’s a great place to work because you have access to so many different kinds of products.”
Inside one of Chef Vecchio’s favorite recipes
Gnocchi remains a signature Italian dish often paired with fresh produce, cheese and warm sauces. Chef Vecchio pairs unconventional ingredients to master key aspects of Italy’s regional flavors, a nod to his country’s biodiversity.
“There is one dish I really like that’s part of my childhood and will probably be on the menu sooner or later,” says Chef Vecchio. “I grew up in a city – well, more of a village, actually – it’s a small village across the sea. We grew up mainly with seafood – mussel, clam, sea urchin. I remember one of the things I loved to use was sea urchin. When I was a teenager, I used to swim down to catch seafood, and I used to love to eat it.
“One dish I like to make is a sea urchin with gnocchi, which isn’t from my area. And then I serve it with lardo, which is an ingredient more from the center or north of Italy. When most people think of gnocchi they think of it with tomato or a cheese sauce – something creamy and warm. It’s more like a winter dish. It’s not normally something you combine with the freshness of seafood.”
Book a table online to visit Aria in Central Monday through Sunday, including for weekend brunch on Saturday and Sunday from noon to 3 p.m.
Address: 24/F California Tower, 30-36 D’Aguilar St, Lan Kwai Fong, Central
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