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Mamma’s little slice of Italy

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Siem Reap’s Carla Rosa is a legend in her own Italian lunchbox. Photograph: Nicky Sullivan/ Phnom Penh Post

As with so many things Italian, it’s about family. Carla Rosa, the Sardinian lady legendary for her role at l’Oasi, opened her Italian food store, Mamma Shop, eight months ago.

It was partially as a means to get by, but also to live out a dream that belonged to her mother. Rosa’s father’s cautious nature and a fear of losing everything had held her mother back, but Rosa, one of life’s true free spirits, is not subject to such constraints.

The result is an extraordinary life lived all over Asia, and today a small shop on the little half street that runs behind Samdech Tep Vong Street that sells the best of everything we love about Italy, including Rosa’s own home-cooked dishes which are fast developing a devout following among those in the know. For foodies it’s an absolute boon, not least for the fresh pasta that Rosa makes to order.

With that resonant Italian roll of the tongue that sounds almost like a religious incantation, Rosa lists out the varieties of pastas that she prepares: “Spaghetti, tagliatelle, taglioni, pappardelle, gnocchi, gnocchi filled with cheese, ravioli with ricotta and spinach, ravioli with porcini,” before her voice trails off to “many things”. You can also add lasagne, pizza, carpaccio, devilled eggs (very popular), salads, sandwiches, risotto, melanzane alla parmigiana, and a devastating selection of desserts to the menu.

For those who prefer to do it for themselves, the shop also carries a tantalising selection of cheeses, coffee, wine, oils, chocolate, vinegar, seasonings, biscuits, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, mushrooms and delicious cured meats and salamis.

Upstairs Rosa has set up a small air-conditioned restaurant and, in keeping with her ungoverned approach to life, it wasn’t part of the original plan. “It just sort of happened”, she said of the neat and simply decorated area.

Of course, it’s not her first restaurant venture. Rosa, along with current owner Roberto Ferroni, was the founder of Siem Reap’s first Italian restaurant l’Oasi back in 2004.

But, unwilling to be held down to one thing for too long, she left four years later. “It was time” she said, “After four years, I felt a need to go. It is much better to work on your own anyway.”

On her own, building up Mamma Shop, Rosa has had to take on everything. “I was the engineer, the architect, the designer,” she said happily. “It was exhausting, but I like it.”

Structure may not suit her, but quality and freshness are very dear to Rosa’s heart. The vegetables she uses come from an organic farm in Pouk District, and she insists on the best from her suppliers, sending one packing recently because his oil was not up to scratch. And her recipes come from the heart of her country. “All Italians can cook” she said when I asked her what inspired her to cook, “We all do it, men, women. It’s what we do.”

She’s no stranger to multiple roles in any event. Over the years she has been a gold trader, importer and exporter, teacher, guide and restaurateur, so shop-owner is simply another mantle to don.

Rosa first came to Asia when 21 and moved around the region, from Sri Lanka to Singapore, Myanmar to Japan. But only Cambodia held her. “I arrived here in 1995, and when I saw the temples it was like a dream. They were so beautiful.” she said. “I stayed in a guesthouse for a while. Then I rented a house for the first time in my life, and became an Italian teacher for the guides.”

She also started volunteer teaching at the Bayon School, which she still does. The school is an NGO that supports education for 420 students, including 12 who are now in university.

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