MENTION pasta and pizza to Umberto Bombana, the chef of the Ritz-Carlton's Italian restaurant, and he shrugs his shoulders. ''I'm happy they've made Italy famous. But it isn't in my tradition.'' Mention the notorious Catherine de Medici or Machiavelli to Bombana and he smiles approval. ''They were both from Tuscany,'' he admits. ''De Medici's French husband thought we Tuscans were barbarians, so he brought over 50 French chefs. Machiavelli was simply a good Renaissance politician. And remember, Tuscany began with Florence. We were the home of the Renaissance.'' Bombana is not your ordinary chef, and he has no intentions of making Toscano an ordinary restaurant. He follows classical Italian tradition, far removed from foods which made Italian eating synonymous with checkered tablecloths, dripping tomato and oozing cheeses and spaghetti. ''Tuscany was the cradle of aristocratic cuisine,'' he explains.'' But, like Chianti, our most famous wine, we are a blend. We have complex traditional classical recipes and simple dishes. But they are not really that different. They are both tasty and sophisticated.'' The historical reasons are apparent. Florence was the home of aristocratic dishes, created during the Renaissance. But Florence, in the forefront of what we now call unionism, was the first place where guilds were formed including one which covered all the food trades. Thus, a bond was formed between palace chefs and olive-oil refiners. Toscano's menu of ''classic'' dishes include a tuna dish which is seared and sauteed with vegetables in a Chianti sauce. Also from the region is the ''chicken Tuscan style'' but Bombana is not entirely satisfied. ''The chicken is roasted with mushrooms, but the imported ones are a bit too strong for our fairly mild cuisine, so I have added local mushrooms to give it that special blend.'' Typical of the ''rustic'' dishes is a Cacciucco alla Livornese. Cacciucco actually comes from an Arab word meaning mixture (shakshoukli, so this is Tuscany bouillabaisse. ''It's different than any other,'' says Bombana. First, the soup is made, from small fish, vegetables and herbs. Then I add the big fish, the snappers and the clams. Finally fresh fennel. '' Tuscany food has no pasta, but it does have complex soups, stewed dishes and offal. Then, thanks to the regional olive oil - ''the best in the world'', Bombana describes the extra-virgin oil in the restaurant - frying brings out the mixture of dishes. Umberto himself comes from Bergamo in Tuscany, known for its music, its chefs, and yes, its olive oil. Olive trees grow in every field, alternating with expanses of vines and neatly cultivated fields. ''Our food is simple and harmonic, but we took our ingredients from other places. Our tomatoes are the best,'' says Bombana, who presently uses Chinese tomatoes planted by the Jesuits 300 years ago. ''But then, tomatoes aren't even Italian. They come from Central America. ''Columbus - who came from near Tuscany in Genoa - brought back tomatoes. In Italy, our fields took to them, and today our tomatoes are a major part of our diet.'' Could noodles and spaghetti have come from China with Marco Polo? Bombana thinks not. Something of a historian on food, he relates how the Italians were using pastas long before the 13th Century. ''It's a nice tale,'' he confesses. ''But very unlikely.'' After high school, it was natural that Bombana studied cooking - a two-year course, eight hours a day - where in Tuscany, as in China, studying the art of the grand chef is a matter of pride. ''How did my colleagues, my friends, my family think about me studying the art of the kitchen? Well, we must be honest. There are good cooks and bad cooks. Were I to become a bad chef, they possibly wouldn't take pride in my work. But after graduation, Iwas immediately taken on at the Michelin two-star hotel, the Cassinetta di Lugarnano. While I was working there, it became a three-star Michelin restaurant. So possibly I was doing something right.'' After that, California called, and he joined Rex Restaurant as a sous-chef. But in l988, he was appointed chef. The owner of Rex then opened Pazzia, in West Hollywood, where the stars, producers and directors all went for Bombana's recipes. How did stars like Madonna behave in Pazzia? ''She enjoyed the bean soup,'' says Bombana. Later, Carlton offered him a job in Hong Kong opening a restaurant. ''It occurred to me,'' says Bombana, ''that one reason I had studied to be a chef was to see the world. Well, I saw Italy and Hollywood and, when my girlfriend and I broke up in Los Angeles, I decided it was time to move out here.'' In Hong Kong, he has come across an irony. This city is not simply filled with Italian restaurants - it is plagued with Italian restaurants. At the lowest end are local and Japanese-Italian restaurants for teenagers who believe they're eating Italian food, when they're simply gorging on won ton with tomato ketchup. Up a few grades is Spaghetti House, giving good value for American-Italian food. The Bella Donna/Valentino type specialise in southern good drippy pastas. And above this is the Italian restaurants of Grand Hyatt - grand but brilliantly produced gnocchi and pesto. Other hotel restaurants try hard, but their haute snobisme doesn't quite match their cooking. Umberto, in the frantic four-week race to get his eight chefs doing his bidding at Toscano, hasn't tried the other places, but is busy trying to create his own vision. He is still researching the markets, looking for the best fish and vegetables, herbs and spices. He's not satisfied with the mushrooms exported to him here (''the real Tuscany mushrooms are sweet, not strong like the Roman mushrooms) and is waiting to see how the elegant dining room attracts Hong Kong people. Toscano's menu has yet to be finalised, though, and Umberto Bombana is willing to compromise as months go by. ''Tuscany food may be traditional, aristocratic, classical. But I'd like to add more pasta to the menu. I'd rather have a good spaghetti al dente than all the foie gras in the world.''