Delhi’s Italian Connection – Part I

Minestrone Soup, La Brezza
Minestrone Soup, La Brezza

This is part one of a three part series on Italian food and it’s presence in Delhi. Read parts two and three there.

That the city of Delhi likes its Italian is no secret. Whether the Italian it likes is Italian indeed is however a different story. Every second ‘continental’ restaurant that opens its doors to the public proclaims their kitchen to be the holy grail for Italian food in the city. American pizza chains advertise their wares such that consumers are left in no doubt that the stuffed crust they’re biting into, was taken from the heartland of the Italian countryside. I recall a recent conversation where the menu of an Italian concept restaurant was being discussed. The man behind the restaurant started off with a grand statement that his restaurant would only serve the most authentic Italian food. When asked for examples, he thought for a moment and said Pizza, pasta and the rest… you know what I mean!

Ritu Dalmia, owner and Chef at Diva muses, Back  in 1993, people would ask me why their smoked salmon was served cold, I was asked to serve sliced onions with lemon and salt and more or less every Risotto and Pasta dish was send back – kaccha hai. Now clients want their pasta Al dente, I dare to put things like Scallops, Truffle, Artichokes in my menu. Guests pronounce dishes with an ease that would put Italians to shame, and wines! Oh yes the wines, it is no longer about snobbery, the client knows what he wants, knows which ones are value for money, and they order accordingly.

Steak with Polenta, La Brezza
Steak with Polenta, La Brezza

Just like Indian food is largely perceived by non-Indians to consist only of curry, chicken tikka masala, naan-bread, korma and vindaloo, most of us have a fairly narrow idea of what constitutes Italian food.  Just as we have multiple states, each with its own unique style of cooking, Italy too is divided into twenty regions, the food from each region differing considerably from that of its peers. Think of Lombardy, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Sicily and Sardinia among others. A multi course Italian meal begins with hot or cold appetizers called antipasti.  Meant to stimulate the appetite, they also serve as the Italian equivalent of the French amuse bouche – showcasing the talents of the chef and the capabilities of the restaurant. The quality of a restaurant’s antipasti can and should be taken as a first insight into the quality of the food. An alternative to antipasti can be a salad (insalata) or a soup (zuppa).

Risotto with Pancetta, Italia
Risotto with Pancetta, Italia

Chef Willi Haueter, Executive Chef at The Imperial, New Delhi while feeling the Italian food scene in Delhi is fraught with competition advises diners to the possibility of Tuscan food being a great fit for both vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets. I try to go with the classic versions, but keep them light for today’s low carb, low calorie diets, he says.

Primo Piatto (first course) is where the action begins and traditionally comprises pasta, risotto or gnocchi. Similar to antipasti, it is perfectly alright to order two or more samples of different dishes for this course. Portions served as Primo Piatto can be small, keeping the arrival of the main course in mind. Not usually served with side dishes (contorni), main courses can be found listed in most restaurant menus under Fish dishes (secondi di pesce) or Meat dishes (secondi di carne). Sides such as vegetables or polenta among others, can be ordered separately if required. Sweets (dolci) and cheeses (formaggi) complete an Italian meal.

[box type=”info”] Some Italian Regions and their Specialities

Due to the differences in climate and soil across the different regions of Italy, different Italian regions developed their own specialities over the centuries, most of which are unique to that region and carefully protected by the locals and their government. Some regions with an abundance of particular varieties of pigs ended up perfecting the production of pork products like sausages, salamis and hams while others, perhaps due to the deep seated cultivation of livestock are known today for many varieties of delicious cheese. Here’s a quick rundown on the wares some Italian regions are known for.

  • Lombardy has an unusually large number of specialities. The region is known for its panettone, bresaola, Gorgonzola, pizzocheri (buckwheat pizza) and viulin, an Alpine ham.
  • Tuscany, a well known name the world over, is a gastronomes paradise with olive oil, sausage products made from Cinta Senese pigs, bacon, beef and wines from Chianti.
  • Emilia-Romagna is a region the world should probably be grateful to, being the place of origin for parmesan and one of the world’s best known vinegars, aceto balsamico tradizionale or Balsamic Vinegar.
  • Sicily, a geography most Puzo fans would be intimately aware of, instantly qualifies as a seafood lover’s ultimate destination. Fresh catches of tuna, swordfish and lobster being pulled in everyday flavoured with the abundance of citrus fruits and sea salt produced by this Mediterranean island accompanied by traditional Sicilian vegetables like pumpkin and courgettes make Siciliy a preferred gourmet destination.
  • Sardinia, a favourite exotic locale for medieval fairy tales, too has a few specialities tucked away. Consider the thousand varieties of sheep cheese that Sardinia is said to be home to or the crunchy and very thin Sardinian bread called pane frattau, or perhaps air dried wild boar sausages and Asfodelo honey among other examples of Sardinia’s culinary contributions to the world. [/box]
Breads, Infinity
Breads, Infinity

To conclude this part, here’s some thoughts from Bikram Singh, a restaurant consultant who runs Skill Smith Consulting. Earlier, only a certain calibre of people expected and demanded authenticity, while most others would settle for simple, creamy pastas. Most guests today however, being better travelled than before, now recognize authenticity and will even settle for a small, crisp but authentic menu and don’t mind paying the price for it. People who now approach me for regional speciality restaurants too require the same – menus that list dishes using fresh ingredients in authentic recipes that the most well travelled guest would enjoy. Restaurants today aren’t only cuisine driven as they used to be earlier; a guest looks for a complete Italian experience, which includes the seating environment and expect wait staff to know the menu inside-out, including details of which ingredients were used in their food.

Stay tuned for part deux.

Overhead photo: Pizza Margherita, Hilton Garden Inn, Saket

Sid Khullar

Sid Khullar is the founder of Chef at Large, a blog that began in 2007. He enjoys cooking, writing, travelling and technology in addition to being a practising Freemason. Health and wellness is a particularly passionate focus. Sid prefers the company of food and animals to most humans, and can be reached at sid.khullar@chefatlarge.in.