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Mmmm...a mia! says Pune

ALKA KSHIRSAGAR
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A bite of Italy: Focaccia at the Pesto Pesto restaurant in Pune
A bite of Italy: Focaccia at the Pesto Pesto restaurant in Pune

There's a sharp rise in the number of Italian food outlets.

Not so many years ago, the Italian managing director of a multinational in Pune was seen teaching a fellow diner the joys of eating bread dipped in an emulsion of extra virgin olive oil and Balsamic vinegar. The setting was one of just a handful of restaurants in the city that served Italian cuisine.

Today, the Pune air is well nigh redolent with flavours from Italy. Restaurants exclusively serving Italian cuisine have sprung up across the city over the past few months, espousing a growing trend that says “Prego” — Italian for ‘welcome’.

“It’s raining Italy in Pune,” agrees culinary expert Karen Anand, who feels that the Italian food in the city is more authentic, and often better, than what is available even in Mumbai. The current tally is over a dozen, mostly upmarket restaurants serving only Italian cuisine, the latest incumbents being Spaghetti Kitchen in Amanora City, Café Mangii at Phoenix Market City and the high-altitude (12th floor) Pesto Pesto in Koregaon Park, not to mention new outlets of home-grown chain Little Italy.

The rapid emergence of upmarket American hotel chains has also contributed to the Italian fervour. Pune was the first city in India to have a Favola — the signature restaurant of Starwood Hotels brand Le Meridien. Around the same time Prego got going at the Westin, Marriott opened doors to the Alto Vion, and Hyatt opened the La Terrazza.

Pune’s romance with Italian food began about 22 years ago, with the coming together of the culinary skills of an Italian husband-wife duo — disciples of the late spiritual leader Osho, and the business acumen of a Gujarati entrepreneur. The result was the birth of La Pizzeria (now called Little Italy), on Bund Garden Road.

“In 1990, we were the first standalone Italian restaurant in the city, and probably in all of India,” says Raj Mehta, Managing Director of the Little Italy chain. Though it was set up keeping in mind the strictly vegetarian Osho clientele, the large pool of Gujarati/ Marwari vegetarians with similar eating habits and high spending power took to pizzas and pasta like fish to water and kept the place buzzing.

“Those were cowboy days,” quips Karen of the times when mozzarella was an alien name and lettuce wasn’t even available! Since then, the Puneri palate has matured beyond pizzas and pasta, and high-end ingredients such as Parma ham and well-matured Parma cheese can be sourced locally.

If Italian cuisine has received an overwhelming reception, it is primarily on account of increased awareness thanks to the advent of chains like Pizza Hut and Dominoes, and a burgeoning population of expatriates and out-of-city types who are ready to try new things. Adding to this is the fact that Italian cuisine lends itself well to vegetarian preparations, and can do without ingredients like onion and garlic.

Of course, it may be a while before you could sit in one of the restaurants and call for a Bellini Cipriani, the classic Venetian cocktail of sparkling wine and peach puree, or round off a sumptuous meal with a glass of limoncello, the liqueur typically prepared from lemons abundant along the Amalfi coast… but the way things are going, we’ll get there soon enough.

(This article was published on August 9, 2012)
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