NOT SO LONG AGO, people in Hong Kong were culinary phili-stines when it came to Italian food. Few could tell their fettucine from their farfalle and there were some who thought that Spaghetti House and pizza with Thousand Island dressing and sweet corn were the real thing. But we have come a long way over the last decade. Almost every hotel now has an Italian restaurant and pasta al dente is no longer considered undercooked. Mario Caramella, chef de cuisine at Grissini in the Grand Hyatt, arrived in Hong Kong in 1991 when there were only half a dozen Italian restaurants. He remembers those early days as the beginning of a culinary revolution. The heyday of French restaurants had passed and many closed to make way for Italian ones. 'No one asks for Caesar salad or Thousand Island any more. Hong Kong people have become connoisseurs of Italian food. Before we would only sell a few kilograms of truffles during the season, but now we get through more than 20kg in three weeks,' he says. Umberto Bombana, executive chef at Toscana in the Ritz-Carlton, is equally impressed with Hong Kong's truffle consumption. At a retail price of $33,000 per kilogram, these fungal delicacies do not come cheap, but his guests can easily get through half a kilogram in just one evening. The interest in Italian cuisine is not limited to restaurants. People are becoming more adventurous in their own kitchens, says Claudia Capelvenere, manager of Italian food and wine shop Castello del Vino in Wan Chai. 'Chinese and Westerners are travelling more. They come back from holidays in Italy, understand how to use the produce, and want to try to cook it for themselves.' As people became more knowledgeable about Italian cuisine, Castello del Vino expanded its range of products. The shop now sells more than a dozen types of extra virgin olive oil, 30 varieties of pickles and olive pastes and a huge array of pasta, from the basic penne and spaghetti to more specialist tartufo pasta and salmon pasta as well as porcini mushrooms, pancetta and bread sticks. Italian cuisine has a head start over French cooking in Hong Kong. With its foundation in pasta and risotto, Italian food has an affinity with Chinese food. People will always argue about which came first, pasta or noodles, says Caramella, but he insists that the similarity ends with the shape and that there is a huge gulf in taste and texture. 'Asians eat noodles at the end of a meal to fill up, but Italians eat pasta for the pleasure of it. Pasta is sex,' he says. In those early days, al dente pasta was an acquired taste many were still grappling with. Familiar with the soft texture of noodles, it was not unusual for diners to send their meal back to the kitchen complaining that the pasta was undercooked. Today such complaints are few and far between. 'I always cook my pasta al dente and only have a problem once in every three months. People here know how to eat,' says Bombana. Paolo Monti, executive chef at Gaia in Central, arrived in Hong Kong from the United States seven months ago for the launch of the restaurant. 'Al dente is not a big problem here - I cook more al dente here than I did in America. The people who come to our restaurant are educated about Italian food,' he believes. And the same goes for pizza. People here have overcome the urge for thick, doughy pizza bases groaning under lumps of cheese, and embraced the Italian less-is-more philosophy. The standard of Italian cuisine today owes much to the availability of fresh, quality ingredients. 'Ten years ago getting good ingredients was a nightmare; now there is almost too much choice. I have access to more brands of Parma ham and mozzarella here than I would in Italy. Suppliers understand what we need and I fly in all my ingredients fresh from Italy - it makes for a more authentic taste,' says Caramella. The increase in high-end Italian restaurants makes it economically viable for suppliers to fly in fresh produce. 'Toscana, Grissini, Nicholini's - we all aim for quality and we are getting it. Hong Kong is a great place to cook,' says Bombana. Gianluigi Bonelli, executive chef at the Mistral in the Grand Stanford Inter-Continental, is from the north of Italy where the cuisine is rich with a strong emphasis on game, cream and butter. He moved to the south for his culinary training and learned to cook with olive oil instead of butter and using more fish and tomatoes. 'People are much more health-conscious these days and all over the world, especially in Asia, people prefer the lighter, southern Italian cuisine,' he observes. Caramella says Hong Kong's top Italian chefs have moved away from elaborate recipes to a cuisine more in line with family-style cooking. 'We don't fuss about the decorations on the plate but go for a natural presentation and food that is fresh, tasty and easy to digest. Twenty years ago chefs wanted to impress people with fussy recipes, now it is more Mediterranean.' While Hong Kong people may be commended for an increasingly sophisticated palate, there are nevertheless certain preferences that are particularly Asian. 'Everyone goes crazy for seafood, mainly lobster, prawns and clams. The most popular dish on a menu is almost always the seafood pasta or a seafood risotto,' says Monti. Bombana agrees, observing that Asian clients usually opt for shellfish or a good cut of fish. He makes sure that all his menus include decadent fishy options such as lobster and caviar. Dishes that do not do well in Hong Kong are heavy meat dishes, especially game. One of Bonelli's favourite dishes is rabbit, but he says it has always been a flop on Hong Kong menus. 'I go crazy for rabbit. There are so many different ways to cook it, but no one eats it here. In Asia having rabbit on the menu is like putting dog on a menu in Europe.' With the exception of tiramisu, desserts do not get a good run in Hong Kong. 'Desserts are the classic ending to an Italian meal, but they are not that popular here. If a client orders dessert in Hong Kong, it is usually a Westerner,' says Bonelli.