Come for the wood-fired pizza, stay for the barbecue ribs and wings
Italiani’s Han Thuyen (17 Han Thuyen, D1) is just a short walk from the tourist and selfie mecca of Notre Dame. The un-prepossessing exterior belies an achingly cool interior—the bare brick cladding, exposed lightbulbs and a smattering of faux-pop-art posters, coupled with a ‘lounge’ bedecked with slatted mirrors is reminiscent of a NYC loft-cumspeakeasy. Adding in the 70s disco music, all it lacks is waitresses on rollerskates to complete the picture.
Speaking to Kevin, the soft-spoken owner and his girlfriend Lynda, we learned a bit about the history of Italiani’s, and how it came to be what it is. After nine years in Texas Kevin returned to Vietnam, moving from his home province in the north to the “more cosmopolitan” south of the country to open his first restaurant next to the New World Hotel in 2017, boasting a genuine wood-fired oven and most of the kitchen. “If you have a favorite wood-fired pizza in Saigon, you’ll like mine better,” boasts Kevin. And he’s right—the thin-crust pizza comes laden with toppings, and in a bid to broaden customers’ experience, Italiani’s offers half/half pizzas. We opted for the house special—prosciutto with homemade burrata on one half, paired with four cheeses on the other (VND239,000). Decapitating the twist of burrata, the rich filling bursts out creating a delta of creamy goodness oozing across the pizza, around cherry tomatoes bursting with flavor. The four-cheese option is always my acid test of a pizzeria, and Italiani’s passed with flying colors— offering rich, uncomplicated ingredients and a crispy crust.
Flipping the menu over to explore the BBQ options, we treated ourselves to the Ribs & Wings Combo (VND399,000), which arrived promptly—another nod to the service culture Kevin is keen to bring back to Vietnam. The wings are succulent and have a pleasant, dry spice to them, with wonderfully crispy skin, and the ribs are generously smothered in your choice of sauces. Served as standard with sweet chilli dipping sauce and a complimentary side salad, the combo is definitely a good option for sharing.
Joining the trend of restaurants offering craft beer on tap, Italiani’s offers Pasteur Street’s ubiquitous Jasmine IPA on tap alongside the standard range of cans and soft drinks. Looking at the binary wine choice on the menu reminded me that Kingsley Amis once claimed that “the most depressing sentence in the English language was “red or white?”” However, falling on the red side of this bifurcated choice pays off at Italiani’s, and we were rewarded with a beautifully chilled Toscana Querceta Sangiovese 2016. The restaurant on Han Thuyen doesn’t have a dessert menu, but our ever-smiling waitress came up with a solution for my enduring sweet tooth, and offered to ‘pop over’ to the other branch at 290 Ly Tu Trong and bring us back some gelato. And although we declined, this is indeed the next level of customer service that is rarely encountered in midrange eateries in Saigon, and an offer I’ll definitely take her up on next visit. As we left, I noticed a bitcoin ATM in the downstairs dining area. “Yes, it’s a bit of an attraction for tourists actually. We have one of the only ATMs in the city where you can buy and sell bitcoins. We get lots of Japanese and Koreans coming in to see it, then staying for food. It’s quite a draw,” says Kevin. He secured it through his relationship with bitcoin.vn, and plans to include them in his other restaurants across the country.
Italiani’s is proud to be in the top three pizza restaurants on Tripavisor and plan to expand to other cities and locations in Vietnam and Asia in future. Following that, Kevin tells me the next step will be to open branches in Hanoi, Nha Trang and Hoi An. “My happiness is not just about making pizzas but delivering the best experience to my customers, locals and foreigners both. And on top of that, I have created jobs for many people and I believe that taking care of my employees is one of the major ways to take care of my customers because they are the ones who deliver happiness to them,” adds Kevin.
So if you’re looking for somewhere to trade your crypto-currency, or you’re hungry for a slice of Italian, you can satiate both in the friendly, relaxed atmosphere of Italiani’s.
Images by Vy Lam