Italian cuisine couldn’t get more authentic than Valentina Cucina E Bar

THE way to Valentina Cucina E Bar is unmissable. Visitors are immediately drawn to the appetising smell of crushed tomatoes, sweet basil and olive oil on heated pans.

Upon entering, I was comforted by the warm golden glow radiating from the neon lights that made artistic scrawls above the place. Timeless wood furnishing meets contemporary plush sofas, accompanied by comfortably designed chairs with circular armrests.

What’s most compelling about Valentina Cucina E Bar is the fact that it is run by an Italian chef, born and bred in northern Italy. Head chef Michele Staurenghi duly emerged from the kitchen, the glorious aroma of spice clinging to his dark shirt like perfume. He wore an exotic smile on his face, his handshake as firm as his grip over the frying pan.

At first glance, 50-year-old Michele appears to be new in Malaysia, his pale skin yet to be tanned by our fiery tropical sun. His eyes shone when I prompted him to recount the journey that brought him to Malaysian shores.

“I’ve never been here. I’ve always wanted to be involved in Asian cuisine and see how its flavours match Mediterranean cuisine. I refine my recipes according to the local tastes,” said Michele with a charming Italian accent.

Valentina’s signature dishes include saffron risotto with gorgonzola cheese and stewed octopus, also known as Polpo alla Luciana. Where dessert is concerned, Michele recommended the Tiramisu which is based on the original recipe.

He prepares meals themed around his expertise and passion for Mediterranean cuisine, which is a fusion of Greek, Italian and North African.

“Italian is the heart of Mediterranean cuisine. I try to stay close to that but of course I have contamination as I have been in Greece as well. So most of the time I use some Greek ingredients to enhance the flavour of the dish and to give it an international taste because kitchen is always a matter of taste,” said the chef who has nearly three decades of experience in the kitchen.

While we discussed the finer points of Italian food, the smell of fried basil pervaded the air. The kitchen continued to churn out pasta and pizza, manned by a crew of local chefs who no doubt were touched by his culinary expertise.

Acting on instinct, he beckoned for me to join him in the kitchen where all the action was.

“Kitchen is not a one-man show. You cannot do it alone. It is always a matter of cooperation. We build the recipe together.

“Of course then I refine the recipe myself. I give the final touch. I give the final taste to the recipe myself according to my experiences and my personal taste but the menu is something we create together with the Cinnamon group, per my staff in the kitchen,” he noted.

Michele started busying himself, chopping garlic and adding olives to a pan. While he worked, he informed me that the ingredients were specially flown in from Italy to maintain their authenticity, hence the steep price.

“This is the first original Italian restaurant in Bukit Jalil and people should know the recipe is very close to the Italian one. Of course, we adapt the recipe to the local taste but, let’s say that 95% of the recipe is close to Italy,” he further added.

He proceeded to massage an octopus appendage, informing me that he was making a Polpo alla Luciana for me. Tomato paste was added to the pan, and it was set to cook on a moderate flame.

The end result was a swirl of red, punctuated by glistening octopus tentacles and studded with capers. I stabbed at a chunk of meat, delighted to find it dripping with juice.

Michele’s masterpiece became apparent when a morsel was placed in the mouth. The flesh was exceedingly tender or as Michele describes it; smooth as a cloud.

This is unlike any other octopus meat I have eaten, which is usually chewy and retains the faint flavour of the marketplace. I swivelled a slice of bread in the rich sauce and took in the explosion of tastes which reminded me of the succulent bounties of the ocean.

Moreover, the already sumptuous meal was followed by Fettuccine al Nero di Seppia. It involves fettuccine coated in aromatic squid ink, accompanied by prawns and calamari bathed in marinara sauce.

My already pampered taste buds enjoyed another session of pampering with the Stracotto di Agnello. The Australian lamb shank is meticulously cooked for 24 hours in chianti wine, then generously served with creamy polenta, veggie caponata and rosemary juice.

Furthermore, I must admit that it is a far cry between writing and tasting. Hence, the one true way to experience Michele’s delectable delicacies is to journey to the top of Hyatt Place, Bukit Jalil, where the Valentina Cucina E Bar is located.

Here in the melting pot of culture that is Malaysia, it is easy for us to be overwhelmed by the many food choices but Michele through his talent has elevated the food of his people above them and better yet, he shines brightly in the middle of this crossroads of taste and tradition. – Nov 2, 2023

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