Sabatini Ristorante Italiano opened this past November to an overwhelmingly positive reception, with many dubbing it their new favorite Italian restaurant, and not just in Shanghai.
But why shouldn’t it be when considering the Sabatini brand has embodied excellence and flair in crafting Italian since its 1958 founding in Rome by the Sabatini brothers, who still periodically oversee operations at the Shanghai branch.
Nonetheless, the majority of Shanghai’s Western food, even the fare deemed “phenomenal,” has less than impressed us over the years, so we huffed it down to Jing’an to see if Sabatini was just “Shanghai good” or if it actually invoked the motherland.
As we’d rather eat a mouth-watering bowl of noodles in a grungy, syringe-filled bathroom stall than an overcooked steak at Buckingham Palace, decor doesn’t carry much weight on our grading scale. However, Sabatini’s classic villa-style layout with special pieces carted over from Italy gave us hope that the same attention to detail and quality would be paid to the food.
We were 100% right. After plunging the first house-baked roll of squid-ink-infused bread into butter and scarfing it, we knew we had entered that rare realm where shortcuts don’t exist.
In fact, the warm rolls were such a reprieve after eating the petrified loaves at so many venues, that it took some willpower to forgo emptying our third breadbasket and order the first dish from the spring seasonal menu (another plus in our book).
The antipasti plate, entitled “My Roman Appetizer,” (168RMB) offers an amalgam of Italian creations by head chef, Valentino Palmisano. We initially found the portions to be a tad precious for the price with morsels so miniscule you’d swear they’d gone through the dryer in the chef’s pants pocket.
But the flavors are sincere, especially the shrimp and the fresh greens, and take precedence over any amount of chef wizardry. The only element whose flavors seem slightly out of sync is the chilled melon soup topped with a nest of crisp ham strips for though the melon is refreshingly cool and nectary, it clashes with the salty ham.
The lobster and ricotta cheese scialatielli (168RMB), on the other hand, boasts a perfect chorus of flavors, with a lathering of ricotta that lends the dish a savory, creamy backbone while still allowing the hearty essence of lobster to flourish. The burly lobster hunks, one still sporting a shell, add some muscle to the plate.
Keeping with the seafood kick, we topped off our dinner with the “Black Cod in a crust of bread with almond foam” (268RMB), a dish that could’ve easily failed with an overly-fortified crust that hemmed in the fish’s flavor or a sickly sweet almond foam, but thankfully did not. The crunchy breading segwayed nicely into flaky, but supple fish flesh while the almond foam soothed the palate. Sabatini’s seafood had gone undefeated.
Though we usually forgo dessert because the quality of the desserts don’t make or break a restaurant in our book, we had heard of Sabatini’s hall of fame sweets, and desired to stab a spoon in. They did not disappoint.
We recommend the “Pear and Riccotta” custard (98RMB), which for a compilation of fat and sugar, is surprisingly multilayered. Enter a ricotta cream so creamy you want to go back in the kitchen and lick the steel bowl, and a crust that’d be offended to be attached to even the best American apple pie. And after that, if your arteries aren’t more clogged than the Pudong Tunnel at rush hour, go for the cookie plate.
Fresh ingredients, pastas and breads made from scratch, and a legacy of over half-a-century of culinary mastery make Sabatini more than just a go-to Western spot in Shanghai. This Shanghai branch could go mano-a-mano with elite fine-dining digs in just about any city.
Sabatini Ristorante Italiano – Wheelock Place, 1/F, South Annex, 1717 Nanjing Xi Lu, near Huashan Lu (南京西路1717号, 近华山路). Tel: (0)21-3127-8577. Hours: Mon-Thurs, 11.30am-10.30pm, Fri-Sun, 11.30am-11pm.
See a complete list of our reviews here.
Benjamin Cost is Shanghaiist’s Food Editor. Email tips, recommendations, and news updates on Shanghai’s dining scene to [email protected].