SINGAPORE (Mar 5): There is a saying in design circles that the best designs are the ones you do not even notice. They are so subtle, you take them for granted. A perfectly tactile light switch. The smooth swiping motion on your smartphone’s screen. The crown of a mechanical watch that makes satisfying clicks as you wind it.

I think this as I am — of all things — eating lasagna at Casa MANINI, a 46-seater, homestyle Italian restaurant in Serangoon Gardens that opened in mid-February.

Actually, I do not realise how good the -lasagna is until later. Then it strikes me: The pasta is perfectly cooked, not too dry and not too floury. The Bolognese, made of beef and pork, has the right amount of tartness; it does not overpower the dish. And the béchamel sauce brings it home with a satisfying umami.

The dish is former luxury industry executive, now self-taught chef, Fulvio Manini’s speciality. It is a family recipe honed to perfection over decades. The word “family” comes up a lot during my hour-long chat with Manini, who is of Italian extraction. It is, in fact, the inspiration for, and the reason behind, Casa MANINI.

Home away from home
Manini, 54, was most recently senior wholesale manager at Bulgari, a company he worked at for almost 25 years. But over the years, he says, work became increasingly challenging and he did not have the same energy he once did. It was time for a change.

“I [had] been living on autopilot the last few years, not feeling satisfied. I had a good salary, yes, but was it ‘me’? No. I spent a lot of time soul-searching. I was ‘me’ on weekends, cooking and entertaining friends,” he says.

“We’ve been entertaining for maybe 10 years. I wake up every Saturday morning thinking about what I should buy at the supermarket. It’s almost an obsession, but something I enjoy doing: spending Saturday afternoons in the kitchen.”

Over time, his home — which he shares with his Singaporean wife Fiona and their children Giacomo, 10 and Allegra, 13 — became known affectionately as Casa Manini. Christened by family and friends, the name stuck.

So, when it came time to name the new venture, the decision was simple. “It made sense for us to think of this [restaurant] as being an extension of our house,” says Manini.

Fiona, a senior marcom manager at Bulgari (where they met), was actively involved in the setting up of the restaurant. She helps out in her spare time.

Joining our chat, she says: “Our family and friends kept saying that we should do this for a living. ‘You clearly enjoy feeding people… [and] hosting.’ So this is who we are. This is our home, and we want to extend it to people who don’t know us but want an environment that they can feel comfortable in.”

The Maninis’ neighbours, Loo Geok Leng and her husband Sugiharto Kusumadi, are frequent guests. Loo, who is also in the watch trade — she is the marketing director of Red Army Watches — raves about Manini’s lasagna.

“Fulvio’s lasagna is a standout dish,” she says via email. “His roast chicken as well. And this dish he does with a tuna sauce — I can’t recall the name. His Bolognese is fantastic too, especially with the fresh pasta he makes; as are the pizzas. In fact, I’ve never had something I didn’t like at Casa Manini.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have neighbours like the Maninis. Time permitting, we get asked to go over for a makan session at least once a week or every two weeks. Don’t ask if we eat more often at ours or theirs!”

How it all came together
No doubt the Maninis had the emotional support of family and friends. But taking the leap of faith was not easy.

“Fulvio will be collecting his CPF [Central Provident Fund] this year, so for us to plunge into something like this took a lot of soul--searching and consideration,” explains Fiona.

It was not funds that concerned Manini, though. “I’ve saved a lot of money, that’s why I can do this,” he says. “And Fiona still has a good salary. So we’re not worried about the kids. But it will take up a lot of time, so I won’t be able to see them so often.”

A casual chat with his son Giacomo last year revealed how unprepared he was for this new chapter. “[He asked me] ‘Papa, how much is it going to cost? How are you going to do it?’ Honestly, I had no clue back then. The how, the where, the when. No clue. I was lucky to have friends that helped give direction along the way.”

Those friends included architect Alessandro Lo Giudice, principal of ASDA (Associated Designers and Architects), who offered his expertise in F&B design. Another friend from restaurant consultancy firm GGR Group helped to sort out manpower, logistics and administrative issues.

The Maninis’ priority was to find a space close to their home in the East. They also wanted a location with a village vibe.

Their real estate agent found a vacant unit along Kensington Park Road, across the street from popular hawker centre Chomp Chomp. “When I saw the space, I immediately knew the potential it had. It fit my vision of how I imagined Casa MANINI to be,” says Fiona.

The Maninis decline to reveal the amount they invested in the venture, saying only that they spent within what they had projected in their business plan. Renovations took three weeks, with Fiona using her prowess in marcom and branding to refine the concept and styling of Casa MANINI.

“I worked on the sourcing and procuring of the interior elements, service wares and overall styling of the restaurant. Casa MANINI is styled with toys and objects from our very own home,” she says.

Taking pride of place on the bar counter is a wooden figure of Pinocchio, which was gifted by Fulvio’s late father Francesco. “At home, -[Pinocchio] lived in our kitchen. It reminds us of [Fulvio’s] family,” says Fiona. “When this restaurant came together, I told Fulvio that Pinocchio finally has a home. It was the inspiration, and our calling. When everything was done, I put Pinocchio [on the counter].”

Manini’s paternal lineage can be traced back to the Bergamo, Lombardy region of northern Italy. In 1915, his architect grandfather built the family house in a village near Bergamo. The family also operated an eatery, Ristorante Manini, on the premises.

Family affair
Manini’s paternal lineage can be traced back to the Bergamo, Lombardy region of northern -Italy. In 1915, his architect grandfather, also named Francesco, built the family house in a village near Bergamo. The family also operated an eatery, Ristorante Manini, on the premises. Francesco’s wife Lucia was resident chef.

Manini never saw the house, but he remembers his father mentioning it briefly. “My father was born in 1929 in that house, like most of his brothers and sisters. This was the house they lived in, and it was also where they had a restaurant, where my grandmother cooked.

“My father grew up with the motto, ‘no men in the kitchen’. Maybe that was his excuse for not helping in the kitchen! They cooked typical things from the north of Italy: polenta, Casoncelli, which is a kind of ravioli dumpling.

“When Italy became Fascist, something happened that nobody wants to speak too much about. My father didn’t want to talk too much, because it was a sad time for them. They had to leave the house and go somewhere else.

“My family left the village, went to another place [not very far away], and built another house. In the 1950s, my father and his brothers went to seek their fortunes in Switzerland.”

Italian identity
Manini was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds and grew up in Switzerland, but he maintains an Italian passport. More importantly, he maintained strong ties to his Italian identity and heritage. “We would go to Italy every year and spend a month holidaying there. We had Italian blood boiling inside.”

Food, of course, played a central role in shaping his identity. “I like Swiss food, but I think Italian food is better! I used to enjoy spending time in the kitchen with my mother. She would have the radio on, listening to crime stories. I observed what she was making — things such as home-made gnocchi and béchamel sauce.”

But Manini’s interest in cooking had yet to be sparked. His first attempts at cooking, during his teens, were born out of necessity rather than enthusiasm: He had to feed himself while his parents were away.

Those early attempts would prove useful later on in life. As a student at the University of Neuchâtel, he shared an apartment with two Swiss friends. Eating out in Switzerland is an expensive affair, so Manini and his flatmates took turns cooking for each other every night.

When it came to his turn, Manini would defer to his mother for recipes. From there, his interest in cooking grew. “From my mother’s recipes, I started to add my own touches once I got to know the ingredients, how they tasted and how they interacted together. This is how I created my own recipes.”

Eastern promise
Manini joined Bulgari’s watch division, headquartered in Neuchâtel, in 1993. Not one for Switzerland’s temperate climate — “Neuchâtel in winter is awful” — he would often holiday in the tropics.

A trip to Thailand one year changed his life forever. “In 1997, I went to Phuket for a holiday and it was fantastic. Back then, it wasn’t like it is today.” He loved Asian food and he found the tropical climate extremely agreeable.

A transfer to Bulgari South Asia, headquartered in Singapore, did not seem much of a stretch. In fact, it was the obvious next step in his career — and life. It was also here that he met his wife, Fiona.

Fiona still remembers the first dish he cooked for her: chicken and endives with lemon sauce and pepper.

The lasagna pasta is perfectly cooked, not too dry and not too floury. The Bolognese, made of beef and pork, has the right amount of tartness

Giving back and moving forward
Now happily ensconced in his new role, Manini has found his true calling — as the self-proclaimed heavy metal chef, in reference to his love for the hardcore music genre (Iron Maiden and Metallica are among his favourite bands).

“I feel like this is what I should be doing. I’ve been ‘sleeping’ in a way, not doing what I’m supposed to be doing. This is more me. Who I am as a person. And then, other things will come along,” he says, referring to charity work.

Casa MANINI is already planning to give back. Although many enterprises prioritise CSR (corporate social responsibility), it is rare to find new businesses that are such keen advocates from the start.

Prices are reasonable — pasta dishes are around $20, while pizzas cost less than that

The Maninis are currently in discussion with Babes Pregnancy Crisis Support, an organisation that reaches out to pregnant teens, to offer cooking classes to the girls.

Fiona says: “What they say about helping people is not to give them money, but to teach them a skill. ‘Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.’ Fulvio’s very nurturing, he likes to teach children. He’s not afraid to have someone in the kitchen learning.”

The Serangoon Gardens neighbourhood, too, has a strong sense of community, something she is keen to exploit. “I have a lot of friends with kids, and they’re always asking if I can do workshops for kids. So maybe once a month we’ll have an art programme, with all art supplies provided. It could be stringing beads or painting bottles, things that bring the community together.”

Manini says: “I would like to do well, but it’s not so much for the money, it’s more about making sure people enjoy themselves.” The menu is a reflection of this philosophy. It features crowd favourites such as lasagna and pizzas. There is also a kid’s menu, reflecting the family-friendly approach.

And prices are reasonable — pasta dishes are around $20, while pizzas are less than $20. The most expensive main dish, Australian rib eye, is $29, while the costliest wine, Amarone della Valpolicella, is $110 (all prices are before service charge and GST). The idea is for Casa MANINI to be a place diners can visit on a weekly basis.

The Maninis’ neighbour Loo sums it up best: “Casa MANINI — both the home and the restaurant — is warm, comforting and homely.”

Timothy Chiang is a design junkie through and through, believing that everything from a doorknob to an entire building needs to display thoughtful design. He lives for meeting design luminaries.

This article appeared in Issue 820 (Mar 5) of The Edge Singapore.

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