Soi Lang Suan — Bangkok’s Little Italy

In the heart of Bangkok, just off the Chid Lom Skytrain station, lies a district of Bangkok well known by locals and expats, but that few tourists ever venture to. Between the leafy streets of Lang Suan Rd and Soi Tonson, strategically located between the busy business and shopping areas of Sukhumvit and Silom, is a cluster of serviced apartments, diplomatic residences, local boutiques ? and Thailand’s greatest concentration of Italian restaurants, with at least a dozen competing in the space of a few blocks. And here, “Italian” doesn’t mean “Pizza Hut”: the people living around Lang Suan know their rigatoni from their ravioli, and so do the restaurants. Here’s a tour of a select few.

Air Plane, 63 Lang Suan Rd, tel. +66-2-2524630

When it first opened 15 years ago, Air Plane instantly became the place to be and to be seen for Bangkok’s high-flying society elite, and after a recent renovation is again at the top of its game. Unlike some of the more purist Italian restaurants here, Air Plane is not afraid to mix other influences into its quirky decor, which manages to incorporate reindeer statues and framed Time covers without looking tacky, or its food, which has absorbed some Thai touches but remains Italian at heart. An appetizer of classic beef carpaccio comes in a generously sized portion with shavings of parmesan drizzled with a unique, slightly sweet sauce. Both the spinach ravioli and its tomato-basil sauce are lovingly made by hand, but for a spicy kick, try the Spaghetti “La Mana” with Thai dried fish and lashings of dried red chillies. While not as low as they used to be, prices remain affordable, with most mains clocking in under 300 baht. The restaurant hosts live music performances on weekends, but fear not, the volume is kept low.

Calderazzo, 59 Lang Suan Rd, tel. +66-2-2528108

One of the newer entrants on the Italian dining scene, this popular restaurant is run by Italian-Australian chef Marco Calderazzo. “Our food is southern Italian, from the Campania region”, says Marco, “with very little cream and butter. We use the freshest imported primary produce, cooked to exact time constraints.” The menu changes frequently, but favorite dishes include the hand-rolled Fettucine Calderazzo with oven-baked bell peppers, capers and anchovies, and osso bucco served on saffron risotto. A split-level restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating, downstairs packs in the Thai hi-so crowd, while upstairs features an intimate cocktail lounge famous for its wide spread of Italian grappa spirits. Expect to pay at least 1000 baht per head for a full meal here, and that’s assuming you skip the extensive wine list. Alternatively, the recently opened Calderazzo Bistro (map #3), just down the street in the Marriott Mayfair, offers a more casual version of the Calderazzo experience.

Gianni, 34/1 Soi Tonson, tel. +66-2-6522584

Gianni has been at the forefront of fine Italian dining in Bangkok for eleven years, and is often credited with bringing the idea to the city. “Our food is absolutely Italian”, says chef and patron Gianni Favro. “We cook classic food using modern techniques and a bit of southern Italian style: more olive oil and less heavy cream, to fit the tropical climate.” Gianni is very particular about quality — “for us, the food is the most important thing!” — and ingredients are flown in twice weekly directly from Italy. The menu changes every ten days, with specials changing daily, but long-running favorites include their goose liver salad and real buffalo mozzarella. “Most customers just ask me for recommendations,” suggests Gianni, and goes on to wax eloquent about today’s special of tender veal, gently stewed for no less than eighteen hours until it just melts in the mouth. Dinner at Gianni doesn’t come cheap, but “the value for money is far better than in Hong Kong or Singapore”, says Gianni, hinting at one of Bangkok’s best-kept secrets: at lunchtime on weekdays, you can get a three-course meal for only a little over 300 baht.

Pan Pan, 45 Langsuan Rd, tel. +66-2-2527104

A squat building with darkened windows hidden behind a thicket of unruly greenery, Pan Pan doesn’t look like much from the outside, but most evenings it’s packed with locals, mostly Thai, enjoying a cheap Italian treat. The decor inside is unpretentious, with a brick tiled floor, scuffed wooden furniture and creamy yellow walls, but that’s perhaps why it’s the only Italian restaurant in the area that actually looks like a working-class trattoria. The menu is a solid collection of Italian staples, no fusion or Thai touches in sight, with the biggest crowd-puller being their thin-crust pizza baked in a wood-fired oven, with generous toppings and lashings of oozing mozzarella cheese. Prices are very reasonable, with a basic pizza margherita starting at 140 baht and few entrees going over 200. Leave some room for their homemade gelato ice cream.

Originally written for and separately licensed to JetAway, the inflight magazine of JetStar Asia.

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RTW2007: Bangkok part 2, wherein our juggling journalist is hard at work enjoying free spa treatments, finding out how Thai millionaires live and gorging himself with four Italian meals in one weekend.

I was supposed to arrive at Bangkok about an hour before my friend Z, but due to the take-off delay got there only 15 minutes before, and as the plane parkedwaaaaaaaaay at the other end (why does TG discriminate against itself like this? they did the same in Don Muang too!) I ended up catching her — literally — just before Immigration.

This visit, though, was work. I was on assignment, or more specifically three of them: review the Amari Watergate hotel, with a focus on its new spa; write an article about Ari, my favorite neighborhood, and eat at as many Italian restaurants as possible in Soi Langsuan. (I know, it’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.) I’d actually spent the better part of three months at the Amari a few years ago, and it was still a very good hotel, albeit in a mildly awkward location. Recently renovated, the Executive Lounge continues to have the best breakfast views in town, and I’m reliably informed that the spa was pretty good too. As for Ari and Italian chow, I’ll let my stories speak for themselves:

And that, as they say, was that: another 30251 miles in economy class notched on my belt, with surprisingly little pain at that. Picking your long flights carefully helps, and having a laptop with insane battery performance helps even more. Next time, it might be time to up the tempo a little and try flying around the world on low-cost carriers.