Annie’s brand of honest, family-friendly and inexpensive Italian food has conquered the hearts of Beijingers ever since the brand introduced one of the capital’s first wood-fired pizza ovens in the early 2000s. But when we heard the beloved chain was preparing to launch a new fine-dining concept under the name Ponte, we were a bit skeptical. Annie’s strength has always been its ability to offer a unique quality-to-price ratio, offering authentic Italian food, prepared by Italian chefs, to all kinds of clients. But could it ever go upscale?
Entering the brand-new restaurant in Jiangtai, we see Annie’s has, indeed, upped its game in the effort to cater to a new discerning clientele in search for more appealing culinary experiences. At a closer look, though, we realize this new brand is still undeniably Annie’s: family-friendly and approachable. That vibe is apparent even in its looks, halfway between a trattoria and a hip bistro, with understated furniture and whimsical works of contemporary art that appear to be saying ‘Don’t take us too seriously.’
While the offerings at Ponte fall right under the label of ‘cuisine,’ Annie’s did not commit entirely to the idea of fine dining, as its menu still includes the brand-defining pizzas (that in Italy would be an automatic downgrade) and some Italian home-cooking classics like seafood risotto and clam sauce pasta (both RMB88). Nor could its menu be said to be quintessentially Italian, with Western staples like foie gras (RMB138) and Kobe beef (RMB458) making an appearance. Still, our Buffalo Cheese Margherita (RMB85) is quite a step up from its Annie’s counterpart, although we would have loved the buffalo cheese to pack a stronger flavor punch.
Wanting to put Ponte to the test, we order a plate of Truffle Gnocchi with taleggio sauce (RMB138), to see how faithful their little potato dumplings are to the Italian originals. Ponte sees our bet and doubles up: The gnocchi blow us away with their perfect texture and we’re left greedily scooping the leftover truffle cream with a chunk of bread. The same goes for the Milanese Style Beef Filet with Arugula and Pine Nuts (RMB208), a nice reinterpretation of the traditional Milanese recipe, where meat is covered in bread crumbs, with a tender steak served enclosed in crunchy rolls and covered in finger-licking mustard gravy.
At the end of the meal, the Tiramisu (RMB78) knocks our socks off, and so does the coffee that comes with handmade amaretti cookies, just like it would in any Italian café. OK Ponte, we get it, we won’t doubt your commitment.
Pizzas are not the only remains of Annie’s recipe for success in Ponte: Right next to the dining area is Ponte Deli, where Italian specialties including a large selection of cheeses and roasted coffee beans are for sale, so you can relive the Italian dining experience at home.
Meaning ‘bridge’ in Italian, Ponte is all about giving Beijing foodies (and their families) a connection to authentic Italian cuisine. The experiment looks to be successful: Faithful to the originals without being boring, Ponte’s offerings are the real deal, and with the attention to detail, we’re more than happy to cough up some cash.
Our verdict? Ponte carries out Annie’s legacy and plans to be your favorite friendly Italian restaurant.
[Images via Ponte]