A large Matto sign engraved into a purposely unfinished tiled wall greets you as you walk in off the lobby of the Oberoi hotel. A lobby that is strangely located on the 3rd floor of the hotel, by the way. Matto translates as crazy in Italian, and the second “T” has been turned upside down in the name as if to prove the point.
If hipster industrial did Italian farmhouse, it would be Matto – however, the space is a little too familiar. The polished concrete floor, Edison bulbs, exposed ceiling and Chesterfield leather upholstery, is becoming somewhat repetitive across Dubai. Communal high tables, grays, browns and whites bring about a dizzying sense of restaurant déjà vu. Where have all the designers gone? Where is the creative spark? Where is your craziness, Matto with an upside down T?
“Where is your craziness, Matto with an upside down T?”
You want to see crazy Italian – look no further than the Serb. She is neither crazy (hmm..) or Italian, but she did take me to a restaurant in Belgrade called Lorenzo & Kakalamba. They have a pasta dish called Pasta Al Pacino. Yes, they went there. They also have a lady wearing only lingerie who lies in an empty portrait frame and reads a book for the entire evening. I don’t know what book it was.
So, having established that Dragon Mart’s sales of Edison lightbulbs are still going strong and business is brisk for the concrete floor polisher, we were led to our table by an energetic Italian waiter. Matto is a celebration of everything Italian, and all the staff have their names and hometowns printed on the back of their T-shirts. It works for now, because all the floor staff are from Italy, but when Angelo from Manila arrives, it’s going ruin that strategy.
Italian cuisine is at its best when it is simple; using perfect, straightforward, raw ingredients. However, there is so much more to it than that. Italians taste differently. That came out wrong. For Italians, their food is intrinsically linked to nostalgia, comfort, and reassurance. Fundamentally, the way Italians taste their food is different to how you and I taste their food. They eat with the strength and memory of their ancestors – of their very upbringing. It is the result of their life up to that point. If they have eaten that dish a thousand times, they will remember each and every time; who cooked it for them, where they ate it and all the other memories that come with it. That is why there isn’t a more enthusiastic and joyful nation of eaters than the Italians.
So, when a chef boasts about using recipes that are handed down from his grandmother, it’s probably true, and we should probably respect that. Unless it’s just PR spin.
“Glorious, golden, homemade ribbons of hand cut tagliatelle”
The menu has little focus beyond being Italian cuisine. There are some southern influences mixed in with some northern classics. The ragu, for example, originates from Bologna in the north as does the Cotoletta Milanese. The Fregula & Gamberetti is Sicilian and as southern as you can get, but Stinco Di Agnello, is slow cooked and has Mediterranean influences.
I was happy to see they hadn’t compromised their integrity with a dish like Chicken Al Pacino, which is something a crazy Serbian-Italian restaurant would do. I forgive the Matto burger because it is from Naples. Naples, Florida that is.
We ordered a schiacciate stracciatella & tartufo because it has more letters than the alphabet and I wanted to hear the Serb pronounce it. We also ordered the manzo tartare because the Serb wanted meat. Surprise, surprise.
The service team were like the Italian version of One Direction. There was the cute one with the bed head, the sultry one with a catwalk pout, the older one with a beard, the joker who stuffs spaghetti up his nose, and the bad boy who arrives late to his shift and has to wear other co-workers T-shirts because he forgot his. I am sure I saw three Lucas from Turin walking around. They all take it in turns bringing food to your table, like their solo verse in a love ballad.
The unpronounceable schiacciate is an Italian flatbread with stracciatella cheese, truffle, and caramelized onion. It arrived on an oversized wooden board, looking a little bit overwhelmed and lost. However, it made up for that in flavour – I am always dubious about truffle – it is often overused and misused, but here they have got it right. Slightly sweet soft cheese, offset with the musty umami of the truffle. The flatbread was crispy and baked well.
“The chef is so Italian, he only speaks with hand gestures”
The chef is Italian, and according to our waiter, he is so Italian that he only speaks with his hands. The pasta is all made fresh in house, and our zucchini and pancetta had glorious, almost golden, homemade ribbons of hand cut tagliatelle, coated in a light, delicate zucchini cream, with beef pancetta. It showcased deftness of hand and control of flavours from the kitchen brigade. Unfortunately, it also suffered a little without the saltiness and irreplaceable flavour of pork pancetta.
The pasta portions are Italian sized portions, and so you are not overloaded with carbs. Unless you stupidly fill up on bread before the food arrives.
The ricotta cheese gnocchi is also made in house and came with a wonderfully balanced beef ragu. They use a blend of ribeye and filet beef in the recipe, which allows the sauce to develop a deep and rich flavour. The tomatoes found a great balance of acidity and the parmesan brought a creaminess to the dish. It was perhaps my favourite dish of 2017 so far.
At the table next to us, were some professional food bloggers, being taken through the menu by the manager. They were carefully arranging the table, so it looked like it hadn’t been arranged, before taking studio quality images with their latest iPhone cameras for whatever social media platform they were most popular on. They also kept requesting seconds and thirds of each dish, as it seems they had mistakenly eaten the food before they took pictures. The manager graciously kept bowing to their requests through gritted teeth.
I took a photo of my leftover gnocchi in the hope the manager would bring me more food. It didn’t work.
By this stage, Matto was growing on us. There is an authentic charm and honesty that many other restaurants spend years trying to find. Matto’s relaxed cohesion and endearing personality is almost impossible to plan for when opening a restaurant and I applaud the Italian One Direction for their knowledge of menu, charm, and engagement. I applaud the chef and his kitchen team for their commitment to simplicity and freshness, and I applaud his grandmother for her recipes.
We finished off the carb overload with some striscette – lightly fried dough strips with Nutella. The Italian churros. They arrived hot from the kitchen, sprinkled with large grain sugar and a jar of Nutella. The dough was a touch pale in colour, but Nutella instantly improves anything. They were finished very quickly, despite us being in danger of slipping into a carb coma.
Matto holds the middle ground of the Italian restaurant world – finding a home below The Artisan and Cipriani but well above the likes of Carluccio’s and Eataly.
There is seismic shift happening in the Dubai restaurant world, and it’s not my stomach for once. A celebrity chef is no longer king – homegrown concepts are getting better. Much better – and Matto might be leading the charge this year. A delightfully accessible Italian restaurant.
Matto – The Oberoi Hotel, Business Bay
Phone Number:- 04 444 1335