Aqua Group’s Alex Bellafronte on Italo Dining Culture in HK
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Aqua Restaurant Group’s Alex Bellafronte on Sharing Italian Dining Culture

Aqua Restaurant Groups Alex Bellafronte on Sharing Italian Dining Culture

Steering operations for Aqua Restaurant Group throughout Asia and all the way to the Middle East, Alex Bellafronte is a player in the F&B industry with over two decades of experience and a big-time roster of venues around the world to his name.

Having previously managed restaurants under Gordon Ramsay and Aubaine around London as well as Zuma in Rome, London, Dubai, and Hong Kong. Alex now spends his time as Operations Director behind various Aqua Restaurant Group dining spaces that have dazzled the city’s gourmands and visitors from beyond.

Over the past two years, Alex has helmed Aqua Restaurant Group to open a whopping five new restaurants, including the relocation of the iconic aqua flagship to Tsim Sha Tsui, accompanied by award-winning Northern Chinese restaurant Hutong. Bringing in a touch of heritage from his Italian roots, he also played a crucial role in opening Italian concept Cantina at the historical Tai Kwun, in addition to the picturesque glasshouse bar and restaurant Vista atop of One Peking building across the harbour.

Sitting down with The Beat Asia, he shares the secret behind his approach to standing out in the already crowded Italian dining scene of Hong Kong, and realising his visions with the Aqua Restaurant Group.

Aqua Restaurant Group’s Alex Bellafronte on Sharing Italian Dining Culture
Hutong, Tsim Sha Tsui

When did you first become interested in F&B?

I started working in F&B when I was about 14 years old. The odd job during the high school summer season in Italy, first on the floor, and then step by step I grew. There was a break when I moved to London. My original plan was to write, actually! [laughs]

After a few months, I went back to what I’ve always done, which was hospitality. From there, my career went up [sic]. I had my own restaurant in Italy and used to run clubs and bars as well, so a bit of everything - 360-degree hospitality.

How did you end up leaving Europe for Hong Kong?

[Working with] Gordon Ramsay was the game changer. I spent a few years with Gordon, lost my hair, you know [chuckle], and then from there I was with Zuma for six years. They proposed I go to Rome to open Zuma Rome, so I returned for a year and a half.

The natural step [from there] was to become Director of Operations, but there was no space in Europe, they said to me, “have you been to Asia? No? Great!” And so, I moved here in 2018. Now, I’ve been leading Aqua for nearly two years.

Was there anything specific that drew you to Aqua Restaurant Group? What made them stand out from the competition in Hong Kong?

Aqua approached me with a very interesting offer. It’s a big company, with lots of restaurants and bars plus the Aqualuna junks in Hong Kong. Exporting the Hong Kong business abroad, we now have Miami, New York, London, Dubai, and so on. This was my opportunity to pursue the next step up. Now, I’m looking after Asia and the Middle East. I work directly with the owners, and I look after business in the entirety of it, [not] just the base operations.

Aqua Restaurant Group’s Alex Bellafronte on Sharing Italian Dining Culture
Aqua, Tsim Sha Tsui

What is the driving force behind Aqua Restaurant Group?

I think the driving force behind this is definitely our founder and owner David Yeo. We have two co-owners and founders, but I’m referring to David as he comes up with the concept, the idea, the atmosphere, and the design. He is very involved in the design, as he's a bit of an artistic genius. A super creative person that can do a bit of everything very well.

Hutong is the most international brand we currently have, with flagships in Miami, New York, Dubai, London, and Hong Kong. Aqua - we just broke ground in New York and Europe, both massive, beautiful spaces.

We need to find the perfect location at the perfect time. It can take up to two to five years just for us to find the perfect spot. It’s like building a dome or a church. The Sistine Chapel? It doesn’t just happen overnight!

Coming from an Italian background and managing several Italian concepts, how do you view the general reception to Italian food in Hong Kong?

Italian cuisine is definitely popular in Hong Kong. From high-end fine dining to [the] mid-range, to something approachable – all three levels are successful.

If we need to find a weak spot amongst the Italian offerings in town, I would say, it's that 80% of the Italian restaurants offer very similar things. You'll find burrata everywhere, but Italian food is much more than that.

So that's what we've been trying to do with Cantina and Vista. It’s to come up with different dishes that people don't know. When you put the burrata there, everybody knows it, everybody loves it. When you come up with a dish nobody knows, because it comes from a little village, it’s a bit more challenging.

Italy has huge amounts of food. You could travel literally 10-kilometres from one village to another, you have different things. First, you need to find the product, import it to keep the quality, and then try to propose it to the guests and educate them. It’s a process, it takes a bit of time.

Aqua Restaurant Group’s Alex Bellafronte on Sharing Italian Dining Culture
Cantina, Central

Is there anything recently that you introduced that was a bit outside the “normal” Italian menus that you felt was received pretty well?

We proposed a pizza [created] in a very different way from a traditional Neapolitan or Roman pizza. It's very thin, and there is very little yeast. It’s crunchy and lighter, easier for the stomach to digest. Then you can eat more food, right? If you go for a normal pizza, that's your entire dinner!

One of the best-selling options is Lobster Pizza. Instead of the tomato sauce, we use lobster bisque, and there is fresh lobster on top, a bit of lime zest. We play around with it.

Hong Kong Island and Tsim Sha Tsui are spoilt for fantastic Italian dining experiences. Do you believe there’s potential to take higher-level Italian dining further afield in the city?

Well, if you go even further towards the Kowloon side or the New Territories, there is still space because of the population density. You have a lot of people living there. Places like Sha Tin and TKO, they're working pretty well.

If you look at the city right now, I think people are looking for something approachable, with great flavour, with friendly service and a menu that is changing regularly. When I say regular, I mean probably every month. I would keep a core menu and change 50% [on a rotation]. Obviously not too far from what we have in Cantina, to be honest. I think that kind of dining, at the moment, is the right offering when we are speaking about Italian cuisine.

Experience is everything now, it’s not just about your food. It is also about your services, your music, your theatrical presentation at the table… Take Aqua, it’s a celebration. It isn't just an incredible place, it's a destination itself.

Are there any future Italian-based projects Aqua Group has coming up in 2023 and beyond?

This year, we are opening two new Italian restaurants in London – one is an easy-going, all-day Italian bakery, and one is an elevated fresh fish and seafood experience.

In terms of Hong Kong, I think for the time being we don't have any Italian in the pipeline, but we are always on the lookout for new opportunities, especially for our casual, everyday brands. That's what we want to replicate to rollout in Hong Kong and in the rest of Asia.

Shiro and Dim Sum Library at Pacific Place, offer all-day dining. Modern, casual, but Aqua style. Great food, very good service, and beautiful locations.

Find out more about Aqua Restaurant Group at their official site.

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