|Pictures by Rashbehari Das
If you went to Italy and talked to a man on the street and told him that there was a chain of top-class, highly successful Italian restaurants in India with strictly vegetarian menus, it is more than likely that there would be an incredulous response.
A small country like Italy has possibly among the most all-embracing, vast and varied cuisines in the world, including China.
If one takes into account all the provincial specialities and variations, there are recipes for every kind of meat, dozens of varieties of fish and seafood, poultry, game, field fare (small birds such as blackbirds, thrushes, sparrows) and birds like pheasant, quail, turkey and pigeons. Hare and rabbit are among the game they eat. There are also recipes for eel and frogs' legs and the meat dishes include brain, tongue and tripe items.
Yet, intriguingly, many items that are 100 per cent Italian with no compromises are 100 per cent vegetarian as well.
If one delves carefully, one can come up with a wonderful array of excellent dishes that really come alive with the simplest of touches, balancing herbs, seasonings and other ingredients subtly and delicately to create some delicious dishes, as the Little Italy chain has done in Pune, Mumbai, Goa, Bangalore, Chennai, Calcutta and Hyderabad.
Pune and Mumbai were set up over a decade ago in 1993 and 1995. Chef Giovanni Federico Autunno who was in charge, was based in Mumbai and lived in India for years, is forthright in the stand he takes: 'I make Italian food, and I refuse to make it to suit Indian tastes. What I cook, you eat. I don't go to an Indian restaurant and tell them to cook the Italian way.' According to Giovanni, 'Italians don't eat. They absorb.'
Calcutta's Little Italy opened on the 8th floor of the Fort Knox building at 6, Camac Street, at the beginning of this year.
At present, chef Dario Dezio is the man in charge. He hails from Sicily and has been in the country for over 10 years.
The commitment to authenticity is shown by the fact that the menus in all the Little Italy outlets are almost exact photo copies of each other.
I landed up in Little Italy, on an impulse, on a Sunday afternoon. There had been a late night the night before with some excellent food, albeit a little rich, on which I had over-indulged and with the mercury trying to do a pole-vault I thought that a straight-ahead vegetarian meal might be a good idea.
For starters, there was Spinaci De Penna that is actually a dip made with young spinach leaves blanched and then chopped, sauteed in garlic butter and then mixed in with a cheesy white sauce. They serve this with crisp pieces of small, thin, toasted bread that you can dip into the sauce.
It is subtle and delicate and if one orders it, I think it is a good idea to have this at the very beginning, before the stronger flavours.
There are also Pale Di Potato, described on the menu as marinated crisp potato skins served with garlic alioli sauce. I asked for this because I thought only Bengalis ate Khosha Bhaja.
In this Italian version, they boil the potatoes, peel the skins (leaving some flesh attached), marinate this in lemon juice, salt, pepper, chilli flakes, chopped green chillies and chopped coriander and deep fry.
The alioli sauce has a mayonnaise base with a bit of garlic and is seasoned with chilli flakes, tabasco, parsley and basil.
It is a delicious item, and a recommended way to enjoy this is to make an open sandwich by spreading the sauce on bread, and putting the potato skins on top of this.
There was also a salad, and one main course dish. I couldn't manage a soup as there was not room enough, and had to also pass on their 'second course', because under Main Courses, they have a first, and a second.
The salad was Ensalada Cefalu, which was boiled mushrooms, green beans and cubes of mozzarella cheese tossed with garlic, basic seasonings, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
The main course item was Cannelloni Alla Florentina; home-made pasta sheets are wrapped around a filling of blanched, dried and chopped spinach mixed with ricotta and other cheeses, black pepper and salt.
These small rolls are placed on a layer of tomato sauce (made each day with fresh tomatoes slow-cooked for a couple of hours), topped with creamy white sauce and baked. A delicious item.
For dessert there was a molten dark chocolate with a firm outer crust served with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream.
I also wanted to try some pizza, which is not among my favourite foods, but at Little Italy, they use the traditional wood-fired oven ' a cavernous metal contraption with a smooth firebrick floor on which the pizzas are placed, with burning wood on both sides.
I ordered their Tabasco Pizza, which is tomato sauce, mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, jalapeno chillies and a dash of tabasco.
This I had to take home and try later, and was pleasantly surprised by its excellence.
The 62-cover restaurant is attached to a cozy lounge bar where you can shake a leg, have a drink and work up an appetite ' even order your food and then be called in to the restaurant area when it is ready.
Both the lounge and restaurant are well designed; the restaurant especially elegant yet relaxed in atmosphere.
For a confirmed omnivore like me, it was nonetheless a very pleasant experience. Each dish was truly individual, and simply made.
I had set out to have a light meal and had ended up over-indulging yet again. Thankfully, I absorbed it okay.