The mastermind behind Brooklyn pizzeria Motorino waxes lyrical about sopressata, fish sauce, and why caviar has no place on a pizza 

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Photograph by King Fung

Belgian-born, French-trained chef, pizzaiolo and entrepreneur Mathieu Palombino surprised everyone when he announced that he would be taking his Brooklyn pizza parlour to Soho. Soho, Hong Kong, that is. The Shelley Street branch of Motorino Pizza is the first outside of New York – never mind the US – and for a city of seasoned travellers and eaters who have seen international chefs come and go with varying success, eyebrows were raised. Could Motorino Hong Kong reach the lofty heights of its East Village or Williamsburg counterparts?

During the soft opening period, we sat down with the chef himself at the pizzeria to chat about his relationship with Hong Kong, his fine dining past, and why he believes the simplest pizza can be the most luxurious.

Want to make your own Neapolitan pizza at home? Watch our video here.

Hong Kong Tatler Dining: The question on everybody’s lips is – why Hong Kong?
Mathieu Palombino: There’s no particular reason except for me being excited about discovering China. I first came here eight months ago, because somebody contacted me and told me that there was a space going. They said that I should open a pizzeria here, and that’s what got me thinking about Hong Kong. I decided I would open a pizzeria everywhere I would like to be. The next stop might be Motorino Paris. I love the city, but pizza in Paris is awful.

HKTD: In the short time you’ve been here, have any local influences found their way into your pizzas?
MP: I’ve tried a couple of things. I’ve tried live shrimps. The flavour was okay – I liked that they were fresh and I didn’t have to use something that came from a freezer. But one thing I really liked that has already found its way onto the menu is tiny bird’s eye chilli [in the sopressata picante pizza]. In New York, somehow they’re not always available, so I’d use dried. But here, I can have them just like that.

HKTD: So would you say the version here is better than the one in NYC?
MP: The sausage ­– the sopressata ­– is much better than what I could get in New York.

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Photo courtesy of Motorino Pizza

HKTD: Apart from the sopressata pizza, tell us about another one of your signatures.
MP: The Brussels sprouts pizza is something you don’t see very often. We pair it with bacon – pork and cabbage is a very straightforward combination – and mozzarella, pecorino. We had a lot of “manly” pizzas on the menu and I was looking for a topping that ladies would like.

HKTD: A “lady” pizza?
MP: Ladies love Brussels sprouts. That’s a fact. I don’t know. There’s just something about them that women like.

HKTD: What would be a very Hong Kong pizza, and would you consider adding it to the menu?
MP: I think we’ll do a pizza with those bird’s eye chillies. I would say, at the top of my head, it would be very simple: tomato, chilli, pecorino, olive oil, and maybe salted dried fish. It’s like using anchovies. There would be a lot of flavour. I’ve walked around the wet markets. I think it would have to be something with dried fish. Shrimp paste? I don’t know if it would bake so well.

HKTD: And what about a Hong Kong Tatler pizza? It would probably have to go well with champagne…
MP: Well I would actually say that the best pizza to go with champagne is the simplest pizza, the marinara. I think no matter how much you earn you should try to enjoy the basics in life. And marinara is where all pizzas start. I think putting caviar or foie gras on a pizza is in very poor taste. Neapolitan pizza is a thing of its own, and there are some things I will never do. It’s like putting caviar on a burger. It makes no sense, and it’s more gross than anything else.

HKTD: What’s the worst pizza you’ve ever had?
MP: In New York, I’ve seen some seriously disturbing pizzas. Pizzas with French fries. Pizzas with hotdogs on it. I see those and I see that the universe is going down the drain.

HKTD: In Hong Kong, we have stuffed crust pizzas with thousand island sauce on them.
MP: It’s a marketing ploy. It’s nothing to do with cooking. What I like about pizza is knowing it’s been like this forever. It’s simple and pure. There’s nothing to be added. I eat very similar food at home. I never eat tasting menus. The day I stopped working in [BLT Fish], I said to myself, I’m never cooking a tasting menu again. And I did it for many years and I can’t even stand being in a fine dining restaurant. I hate it. I think that this dish is stronger than many dishes you will find in a three-star restaurant that costs 20 times the price.

HKTD: But how do you see yourself developing Motorino without the spectrum of innovation?
MP: I’m open to seeing things, but my pizzas have been the same for years. I like the way they are. That said, some things may come along organically that may turn into a new pizza, but there’s no pressure. It will also be different to most pizzeria offerings. For example, the colatura di alici [a kind of Italian fish sauce] pizza. There is an Italian dish that is spaghetti with mozzarella, tomato, chilli, coltura and olive oil. The only thing I did was replace the spaghetti with pizza crust! I didn’t look for inspiration ­– the traditional product came to me.

HKTD: If you weren’t making pizza, what would you be doing?
MP: I think I’d make a good restaurant PR [laughs]. I don’t know, to be honest. A professional boxer? Something very interesting. 

So what did we make of Motorino during our anonymous visit? Read our review here

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