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The second wave of Italian dining

Better ingredients and intelligent diners are driving the resurgence of Italian food in India

The cheese platter in Romano's at JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar.

By Jahnabee Borah

LAST PUBLISHED 29.09.2023  |  09:05 AM IST

"'It has refined flour,’ was the first response when a new Italian place opened a few years ago," says chef Dayamani Singh of the trattoria-style eatery CinCin in Mumbai. In 2023, that has changed as Naples pizzas (fermented for 50 hours), handmade orecchiette and regional dishes from Apulia, Rome and Venice in Italy find their way into menus.

The details are essential, for a discerning diner wants more. This change implies a shift from the generic pesto pasta to Ligurian-style strozzapretti. Liguria is located in north Italy, and strozzapretti is a rustic, hand-rolled twisted pasta, elongated like penne.

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This dish, on the new menu at the premium Italian restaurant Romano’s in JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar, is a comforting combination of handcrafted durum wheat strozzapretti, basil pesto, potato, green bean and Riviera olives—the kind of dish that a well-travelled gourmand would appreciate. It’s meant for the kind of diner outlets such as Romano’s seek to serve now.

Food trends move in cycles, and there’s a rise in the number of Italian restaurants spotlighting regional specialities, fresh ingredients and creative plating all ready for Instagram. The last few months have seen a number of new launches across cities. The pizzeria Camillo’s opened at The Manor in Delhi in August; the premium Italian dining space Napoli by Shatranj reopened after a hiatus of eight years in Mumbai in June; and the eatery Spettacolar, with a menu featuring street foods of Italy—like the crusty bread pinsa romana, the cheesy dessert seadas and crispy fried turnovers called panzerotti—has garnered rave reviews in Bengaluru since its opening in June.

Mumbai-based consultant chef Sanjay Kotian planned the new menu for Napoli, which shut in 2015 because its menu, with creamy pastas and continental dishes, had plateaued. It was the time when modern Indian menus, Japanese restaurants and South-East Asian dishes were most in demand.

They continue to be popular but now restaurateurs have started approaching Kotian to design Italian menus: “I do see classics (pastas and pizzas) as well as modern Italian (Caesar salad) coming back. Among my clients, I don’t have anyone asking me for Asian." The main difference between now and then is the way the food is plated, as well as the attention to technique and ingredients.

Take the case of the Caesar salad, a modern Italian dish most Indians are familiar with. At Napoli, it’s served as mini bites with romaine lettuce leaf wrapped in chicken and topped with addictive Parmesan crisps; whereas at Camillo’s in Delhi, a piece of lettuce head is placed on creamy cheese with charged edges for a smoky twist.

The chicken Caesar salad at Napoli By Shatranj.

Changing the plating and dining experience played a key role in Romano’s new menu, which launched in August. Executive chef Dane Fernandes says they used to be family oriented, with dishes like risotto that came in serving bowls and were meant to be shared.

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Now, a dish comes pre-plated and the portion size is just enough for one. The presentation is Instagram-worthy. Like their cheese and cold cut platters, which are served in mini gondolas, with smoke emanating from the sides.

While social media will get such dishes their share of likes and shares, diners come back for the food, and ingredients are at the heart of it. This means high-quality wheat flour for pillow-soft pizzas and fresh cheese for flavour-filled sauces. Home baking took wing during the pandemic. These days, diners have a better understanding of dough, fermentation and yeast—the essentials of good bread and the perfect pizza. And armed with such knowledge, they demand more from Italian restaurants.

The supply side has improved to meet this refinement in demand. Fernandes takes note of the growing tribe of cheesemongers who have helped elevate Italian food in India. For instance, the cheese Grana Padano is integral to Italian dishes but it cannot be imported to India. The reason: It contains animal rennet and imports of such products were banned in 1984. For decades, Italian restaurants used processed cheese.

About 13 years ago, artisanal cheesemakers began to crop up in India, mainly in cities like Chennai, Bengaluru or Mumbai, and began supplying speciality cheeses to restaurants in their cities. More recently, better cold chain infrastructure has spurred demand for fresh cheese, notes cheesemaker Mansi Jasani. Apart from popular Italian cheeses like burrata, mozzarella and Parmesan, Jasani offers regional variants and styles, such as Montasio, Fontina and Provolone.

Better ingredients, informed diners and even Instagram are making the second wave of Italian menus a spectacular experience.

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