As I sit to have a conversation with Swiss national Daniel Kreis about his restaurant, Aria D’italia Pizzeria and Bar, I get to watch the chef in action.
He kneads the dough using his fists and a rolling pin before smothering the white disc in homemade tomato sauce.
Then he adds freshly grated mozzarella cheese to the crust and places the pizza in a traditional wood-fired oven for about two minutes. The smell of authentic Italian pizza wafts through the air, reaching the patrons’ nostrils.
Momentarily lost in the chef’s graceful movements, I shift in my seat and focus again on the conversation. Kreis is explaining that he took over the business in 2018.
“I was looking for a new challenge in life, and I couldn’t find the right thing for myself back home,” the 50-year-old restaurateur from Zurich, in the German side of Switzerland, says.
“Back in 2005, I was debating where to go. One option was Thailand since I used to spend a lot of time there and spoke the language. In the end, I chose not to go there because Thailand was not so welcoming for foreign businesses anymore, so I landed in Cambodia,” he says.
That year, Kreis, who has a degree in tourism marketing and plenty of hospitality experience, arrived in the Kingdom. First, he opened a resort in Kep, which he ran until 2017. Then he moved to Phnom Penh.
But he did not start Aria D’italia. By the time he took over the business, it was already an established restaurant in Boeung Keng Kang I, one of Phnom Penh’s wealthiest neighbourhoods.
Aria D’italia was started by an Italian man and a Cambodian couple almost 13 years ago. The Italian founder returned to his homeland 12 years ago, leaving the business in the hands of his local partners, who eventually sold it to Kreis.
“My experience in managing restaurants is rather limited. I have worked in restaurants in Switzerland, and, of course, I used to own Kep Lodge. To be honest, my cooking skills come from my mother. People say that if your mother can cook, then you can too,” he says.
Aria D’italia – ‘Air of Italy’ in English – is all about keeping alive the traditional way of making Neapolitan pizza, which Kreis points out, is in the list of Unesco intangible cultural heritage.
High-quality ingredients are an absolute must, he says.
“This restaurant is my income and my livelihood. Regardless, whatever I do in life, I do it with my heart,” Kreis says.
After taking over the business in 2018, he built a wood-fired oven and was open for business. But things weren’t easy in the beginning.
“I was a bit unlucky because all my staff left me and I was struggling to find new people. It is tough to find people here that can cook traditional Italian pizza,” Kreis, a single father with three children, says.
After surviving that initial bump, Kreis says he now has an excellent team that delivers professional service and delicious pizzas.
“We’re so confident in our kitchen that if you don’t like the food, you don’t have to pay. It’s very unique, I think,” Kreis says.
Eighteen pizzas are on offer, including plain with basil ($6.50), mix vegetables ($7), Napoli – anchovies, capers, and black olives – ($7.50), and smoked salmon ($11.50).
Cooked at 500 degrees Celsius for two minutes in a traditional oven, the pizzas are thin, crispy, and have a delectable smoky flavour.
“It’s very different from cooking them in a gas oven, which would take around 15 minutes. We are proud to be making one of the best pizzas in Phnom Penh,” he says.
The menu also contains some items from Kreis’ homeland, including cheese fondue, raclette, and rosti.
“Another speciality is our homemade ravioli and lasagne. We also make gluten-free spaghetti and penne,” Kreis says.
Some of Aria D’italia’s most popular desserts are tiramisu ($4.50), black and white chocolate mousse ($4), creme brulee ($3.50), and gelato ($2.50).
In the drinks menu, you will find a wide selection of coffee drinks, beer, wine, and cocktails.
Aiming to create the ideal atmosphere for family gatherings and romantic rendezvous, Kreis redecorated the restaurant with paintings that evoke Italian themes.
“You’ll get the feeling that you are in Italy, not just from the food, but also the decor.
“Guests can dine in the garden under the shade of a 12-year-old mango tree or, if it’s too hot outside, they can go to the romantic indoor bistro which has three powerful air-conditioners.”
Kreis says the restaurant serves between 30 to 50 guests a day.
Locals order to share, while foreigners usually place individual orders.
“I can say we have a good mix. About 60 per cent of my clients are foreigners and 40 per cent locals,” he says.
“Our food is very delicious and authentic. Everyone comes back. And I tell you, if you don’t like it, you don’t have to pay,” he says.
Aria D’italia Pizzeria and Bar is located at #41Eo, Street 310 (corner of Street 57), Boeung Keng Kang I, Phnom Penh. Opening hours are 5:30pm-10:30pm. It is closed on Mondays. For more information or to place and order, go to www.ariaditalia.pizza or call 011 840 705.