Mumbai’s neighbourhood trattorias
- A host of new, buzzing Italian restaurants in Mumbai are channelling the country’s regional diversity
- These places are showcasing hearty Italian food in a relaxed set up moving away from the fine dining format
Avocado toast is getting some serious competition on millennial Instagram feeds—and it’s not a hipster food fad. It is something any Italian nonna (grandmother) would approve of: fat ringlets of hand-cut pasta glistening in cheese with a sprinkling of coarsely ground pepper—simple, hearty and messy food. Hashtags like #girlswithgluten are slowly beginning to do the rounds, bringing pasta and pizza back to food conversations.
The trend seems to be taking shape in Mumbai too. Last year saw the opening of a clutch of fine-dining Italian restaurants that are taking the focus back to home-style regional Italian food.
A Sunday brunch is under way at CinCin in Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex. Sunlit tables in the alfresco section seat families, young couples and groups of friends. Plates of food keep coming and the waitstaff keeps the glasses of wine filled. Here, it is all about shared conversations, fuss-free food, shared plates and good times.
A March 2019 survey by UK-based public opinion and data company YouGov showed that Italian and Chinese food tops the popularity charts when it comes to international cuisines around the world. And this includes India as well.
Over the decades, there has been a near complete assimilation of Italian cuisine into the country’s street food culture, even spawning regional variations like a chicken tikka pizza or a masala pasta. At the other end of the spectrum, “authentic" Italian food has retreated to the dining rooms of five-star hotels and contemporary high-end restaurants where ingredients are flown in from Italy on a weekly basis. It is only in the last few years that things have begun to change as a new generation of chefs has turned the focus back to the diversity and ingredients that define Italian food rather than its presentation or even authenticity.
CinCin is one such restaurant, playing with the idea of comforting and fresh Italian food. “I wanted to bring in the fun elements of the culture and also create a pasta-focused menu," says Karyna Bajaj, owner and executive director of CinCin. The restaurant has also instituted its own wine programme and serves all its wines by the glass.
It is a similar unhurried vibe which permeates Sorrentina, a new Italian restaurant in Foodhall, the gourmet speciality store on Linking Road, Mumbai. Cristian Borchi, who is the consultant chef at Sorrentina and has helped put together its Tuscan-inspired menu, is a firm believer in traditional cooking. The restaurant is a showcase for ingredients stocked in the store as well as Italian cooking from Sorrento in south-western Italy.
Cecconi’s at Soho House is a breezy seaside all-day Italian diner which also believes in the idea of slow dining and a relaxed experience where food is just part of the whole story—this holds true for its eight other branches around the world.
By playing with Italy’s regional diversity, this new wave of chefs and restaurateurs is also able to extract flavour profiles and dishes that might be more suited to the Indian palate without actually tweaking the original. “We have explored Italy’s flavours and taken inspiration from some specific regions, like, for example, Calabria, which has a lot of spicy food," says Bajaj.
In the Mumbai branch of Cecconi’s, head chef Luca D’Amora focuses on dishes from northern Italy while using the region’s fresh and seasonal produce. “We use a lot of seasonal and local ingredients, especially seafood, due to the freshness and ease of availability. Our food is accessible to the Indian palate because of the strong and prominent flavours present in both cuisines. Having said that, we have stayed true to the authenticity of the Italian flavours, keeping the philosophy of Italian home-cooking intact, but amalgamating dishes with local ingredients," says D’Amora.
Pasta is undoubtedly the hero ingredient across these restaurants and the usual suspects of penne and fusilli are conspicuously absent, as are the standard pesto-arrabiatta sauce combinations. Instead, there is a focus on regional, hand-rolled pasta, cooked al dente and tossed with minimal ingredients. It is all about technique, skill and texture rather than an overpowering sauce. In all three restaurants, pastas with beautiful exotic names evoke small Italian villages and home-style pasta. A dish that keeps appearing across menus is the cacio e pepe. This adult version of mac and cheese is deceptively simple—pasta, olive oil, Pecorino Romano cheese and fresh black pepper—and an undisputed crowd pleaser.
For those who can let go of their gluten anxiety, these dishes herald a renaissance of pasta in the city. The health conscious can also explore other aspects of the menus that are less carb-centric and channel the benefits of the Mediterranean diet with plenty of fresh ingredients and salads.
Another constant across these restaurants is their cicchetti, or small plates section, which fuels the whole philosophy of Italian food as a community experience. Essentially, the idea is to kick back in a relaxed space, escape the daily grind and bond with friends or family over a glass of wine, a comforting plate of pasta and endless cheer.
Sanchez’s Italian job
At age 26, chef Alex Sanchez came to Mumbai, after training in Michelin-starred restaurants in America. He started off as the executive chef at The Table in 2011 and brought a new cuisine-agnostic, ingredient-driven food identity to Mumbai. After eight years, Sanchez decided to take time off and travel to find his next calling. This, as it happens, involved a return to a simpler style of comfort cooking. This is what gave birth to Americano, a restaurant inspired by Italy’s culinary history, located in Mumbai’s chic Kala Ghoda neighbourhood, which opened on 19 March. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Hand-rolled pasta has always been your forte, but are you trying to push the boundaries of pasta even further with Americano?
We have 12 varieties of handmade pastas and some of them are in rather unique shapes that diners might not have experienced before, like the fat Udon-like pasta called pici and the corzetti stampati, a coin-shaped pasta from Liguria. I think all pasta is about how the shape plays with the sauce and textures. What’s most interesting for us is to see how willing people are to eat chewy pasta as that is not a strong tradition in India. Fresh pasta is all about texture and it will be interesting to see how far we can push that.
How did your trip to Italy inspire Americano and give rise to a different food philosophy?
We (Sanchez has started the restaurant in partnership with food entrepreneur Mallyeka Watsa) travelled around Italy for a month, exploring the country’s rich culinary history. We had decided that we wanted to start something that would be a neighbourhood restaurant and that it would have Italian influences. We wanted to open a place where people would come regularly rather than on special occasions. Our trip wasn’t as much as finding things we could put on our menu, as it was about absorbing that culture. It also made me realize that I was happiest cooking simple food.
How does the idea of a neighbourhood restaurant translate from Italy to Mumbai?
It’s actually more of a mindset. We want people to feel comfortable and to make sure that there are enough tables available for walk-ins and people can just stroll in to grab a drink and a pasta. And, of course, to have service that is not too stuffy. These are all the building blocks of a neighbourhood restaurant, it’s just that our neighbourhood is bigger and encompasses all of Mumbai.
Is fine-dining on the wane?
I believe fine-dining is essential to the food world. Without it, we don’t have innovation and we don’t have these great chefs who train younger chefs. And while great fine-dining is all about creating a wonderful experience, it’s also a little bit about, ‘Look what I can do’, and the cult of the chef. We wanted to move to something that had less focus on us and more focus on the guests.