Italian…beyond pizza and pasta!

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Do Indians really love Italian food or are we just pizza-pasta junkies?


Until the Americans got involved, pizza was little known internationally
Until the Americans got involved, pizza was little known internationally(Istock)

The first time I ever had pizza, it was not in New York or Naples or anywhere quite so glamorous. I had my first pizza in Ahmedabad and it was home-made.

It happened like this: my aunt Sushila Subodh (Sushilamami to me) has been regarded as one of Ahmedabad’s best cooks for decades. In the 1960s, when most of us knew very little about Western food, one of her specialities was pizza. She made it, I think, to please her husband’s family. They had all gone to university in America, had developed a love for pizza and had been dismayed to find no sign of pizza anywhere in India.

The tomatoes that are an integral part of the Brits’ Spag Bol owe more to Naples than Bologna (Getty Images)

So Sushilamami took up the challenge and began turning out high-quality pizzas that became the stuff of legend.My family told me that Sushilamami loved making Italian dishes. (Which she did; they were outstanding.) This was hard to reconcile with another claim: that the family had discovered pizzas in America.

So what was this thing called pizza, exactly? Was it Italian or American?

You must remember that, in that era, our exposure to Italian food in India was severely limited. Outside of Sushilamami’s kitchen, it was hard to find pizza. And nobody ever used the term pasta. We called all pasta ‘macaroni’. A little later, in the ’70s, grocers started stocking spaghetti and, at least in North India, a few housewives began serving spaghetti in keema gravy, a variation on spaghetti bolognaise.

Nor were there many Italian restaurants. When Indian hotels wanted to serve ‘continental’ food, they went with classic French. At coffee shops, there were only a few attempts to put spaghetti on the menu. At the Mumbai Taj, the Sea Lounge served

Spaghetti Carbonara and Spaghetti Napolitana, made so inauthentically that the Taj managed to insult the populations of both Rome and Naples at a single stroke.

The Taj’s Trattoria alerted the restaurant trade to the potential for Italian cuisine in India

There was, apparently, an Italian nightclub at Mumbai’s Ritz Hotel called The Little Hut but I was too young to be allowed inside. And though other restaurants had such Italian names as Venice and Napoli, there was nothing particularly Italian about the food. At Bombelli’s(“Swiss Cafe”), the pastry shop made a ‘pizza’ that was no more than a patty. (Though Mario, their pianist was, if I remember correctly, an Italian; presumably he had the sense to steer clear of the ‘pizza’.) And try as I might, I can’t remember a single Italian restaurant at any Oberoi hotel in the 1960s and 1970s.

Why didn’t anyone want to serve Italian food?

Well, the restaurant trade was in its infancy and nobody had realised that Italian was the one European cuisine that Indians would love.

The original Diva in Delhi is one of the only pizza-free Italian restaurants I would go to

In 1977, when they were about to open the Taj Mahal Hotel in Delhi, Ajit Kerkar, Camellia Panjabi and the two top Taj chefs Satish Arora and Arvind Saraswat toured Italy, eating their way through the country. They shortlisted the best dishes they had eaten, came back to India and opened Casa Medici on the rooftop of the Delhi Taj.

As a restaurant, Casa Medici was about 20 years ahead of its time. The food was authentically Italian, which was hard to do in that era when ingredients could not easily be imported.Casa Medici worked as a nightclub (it had a band) for rich Indians and tourists but it had zero impact on the way that Indians ate.

A few years later, when it took over the President Hotel in Mumbai, the Taj had a brighter idea. It abandoned the fancy Italian food of Casa Medici and opened a casual trattoria called, with a staggering lack of imagination, Trattoria, which doubled as the hotel’s coffee shop.

It was Trattoria, more than any other Italian restaurant, that alerted the restaurant trade to the potential for Italian cuisine in India; but not the haute cuisine of Casa Medici. What Indians really wanted was pasta and pizza – lots of lots of pizza, actually. (So Sushilamami had the right idea!)

After grocers started stocking spaghetti in the ’70s, a few housewives began serving spaghetti in keema gravy (Shutterstock)

In that sense, we were only following a global trend. It has often been said that every country has its own version of Chinese food. What we don’t realise is that the same is true of Italian food.

In 1920, an Italian visitor to New York ate at an Italian restaurant and was introduced to Chicken Parmesan (or Parmigiana) and spaghetti with meat balls. Having never eaten them in his own country, he remarked that he found them quite tasty and hoped that someone in Italy would invent them for local diners.

In time, American-Italian became a cuisine in its own right. (Like our Sino-Ludhianvi Chinese food.) Dishes that had never been heard of in Italy like Veal Marsala and Clams Casino became fixtures on every menu. Fettuccine Alfredo was invented in Rome in 1914 but only became famous in the 1920s after American movie stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford said they liked it. Even today, the dish is a staple of Italian restaurants in America, not of those in Italy.

Now, Americans make fun of ‘red sauce Italian’ and prefer the real thing (at least in the big cities) but there is no denying that Italians owe America big-time for popularising their cuisine.

Until the Americans got involved, pizza was little known internationally – often poor Italians would just smear sauce on bread, put it in the oven and call it pizza. But the Americans reinvented pizza, exported it and turned it into a global craze (which is why, as a small boy, I was confused about whether it was Italian or American).

So it is with British-Italian food. Spaghetti Bolognaise is an abomination to purists. Yes, there is a complicated meat sauce, called a ragu, made in Bologna but it bears no resemblance to what we call Bolognaise sauce in most of the world. And the tomatoes that are an integral part of what the Brits call Spag Bol owe more to Naples than Bologna. Nor do they eat their ragu with spaghetti in Bologna – they prefer fettuccine.

In the Swinging Sixties, when social barriers were breaking down in London, the new elite needed new restaurants. Two former waiters Mario Cassandro and Franco Lagattolla revolutionised the restaurant scene by opening trendy Italian restaurants that served dishes that they had invented in London including Pollo Sorpresa, a sort of Chicken Kiev with an Italian accent.

A few of those Italian restaurants survived on the basis of a devoted clientele – San Lorenzo, La Famiglia etc. – but ever since The River Café opened in London in the late 1980s, even the Brits have discovered real Italian food. Which is not to say that the era of Spag Bol is over but that people now recognise that there is British-Italian and there’s the real thing.

Why did it take so long for us to realise that Indians liked Italian food? Well, mainly because, when it comes to taste, nobody (not even a market research operation) knows anything. The Chinese food explosion happened by chance. The current sushi roll craze was unexpected. And so it was with the Italian boom.

But a few qualifications need to be made:

One: I am not sure there is really an Italian food boom. I think Indians love pasta and pizza but I don’t think we have much affection for the rest of Italian cuisine. The Taj’s Casa Medici did not work in the long run. Neither did the Hyatt Regency’s Valentino. And I can’t think of a single pizza-free Italian restaurant that I would really want to go to in most of India with the possible exception of the original Diva in Delhi and Vetro in Mumbai.

Two: Indians love carbohydrates. Anything with a high rice and wheat content stands a good chance of success. This is why Indians order both rice and noodles at Chinese restaurants, why we like rice-encased sushi rolls and why we love pasta and pizza. Take away the carbs and all restaurants struggle.

Three:Much of the restaurant-going market is vegetarian. So, any cuisine that has vegetarian options is more likely to succeed. With pizza and pasta, the vegetarian element is already there. With the others, you have to invent things like Gobhi Manchurian and Masala Paneer sushi roll.

Four: My pet theory is that the story of India’s love of foreign food is actually a discovery of umami, an element that we don’t necessarily have much of in our cuisine. (Think about: tomato, parmesan, soya sauce – what do all of them have in common?) But that’s another piece for another time.

So was my Sushilamami ahead of her time?

You bet!

Her pizzas would still beat the hell out of most of the stuff sold in the Indian market today. They were served hot, straight from the oven, were entirely vegetarian (it was a good Gujarati household) and made with fresh, natural ingredients.

I just didn’t realise then how lucky we were to eat her pizzas!



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