Italian food in Chennai once meant mozzarella laden pizzas, creamy pasta and gooey lasagnes. However, over the past decade a sophisticated, nuanced and far more authentic version of the cuisine has emerged. Shonali Muthalaly meets the people who changed our Italian dinner.

We begin with tiramisu. Chef Roberto Zorzoli, the new Italian Chef at Focaccia, Hyatt Regency Chennai, and I sit down to tussle with the question of authenticity. Then, we get distracted by that tiramisu. It does help him make his point though. “If the taste is good. If the quality is good. Then people will enjoy my cooking.”

It’s a simple premise, but interesting because of the background. For decades Italian food in Chennai meant mozzarella laden pizzas, creamy pasta and gooey lasagnes. Then, Prego, the city’s first fine dining Italian restaurant opened in 2007, at the Taj Coromandel, with no pizza on the menu. Brought up on casual cafes serving Americanised Italian food, often tweaked with desi enterprise (“a little more ‘tadka’ on my pasta please”), the city was — largely — appalled. No pizza? Dressing up for ‘Italian’? And what’s with this ‘a la dente’ business anyway?

We’d like to think we are far more sophisticated now (though, admittedly, a cheese laden, pan crust, chilli flake smothered pizza will never go out of style here). We certainly have more options. Which is why there couldn’t be a better time for young Chef Roberto to come in and shake things up again with his squid ink infused rice balls, gorgonzola sauce laced pork tenderloin and fresh ravioli.

After culinary school in Italy, Chef Roberto worked with a couple of Michelin starred restaurants, before cooking his way through Belgium, Malta and Shanghai. In a world flooded with various versions of Italian food, he stays true to his Milan roots by sticking to recipes that are rooted in authenticity, and dependent on great ingredients. “Home-made pasta is very important for me,” he says, listing some of the versions he makes: Tagliolini, pappardelle, fettuccini.

In an attempt to encourage customers to experiment more, Chef Roberto is walking around Focaccia every day, urging people to try samples of his cleverly constructed feta salad, crunchy with pine nuts. We sample his lush risotto, made with carnaroli rice, more delicate than the traditional Arborio. It’s deliciously light and buttery, steeped in white wine, and topped with shavings of salty Parma ham.

“It’s essentially simple cooking,” says Roberto, discussing how he plays around with ingredients to make his food fun. “With salads for example, all you need are different dressings to make them change dramatically. If I make a salad with fennel and oranges, then just olive oil, salt and pepper is enough to season it. If I make a salad with salmon, it needs lemon dressing. If there’s goat cheese, I use balsamic… My speciality is not a single dish, but the ability to make multiple dishes taste great.”

He’s not too hung up on authenticity. “I want to do proper Italian food. But I want to experiment too. With paneer, for example. It’s a wonderful ingredient for fusion…” Also look out for his signature chocolate salami. And ‘baci di dama’ cookies, literally translating into ‘Lady Kisses.’ “They’re like the French macaroons,” he chuckles.

Meanwhile, Chef Massimo Gullotta, the man behind ITC Grand Chola’s flagship Italian restaurant Ottimo, has been successfully guiding Chennai through various facets of Italian cooking ever since they opened in 2012. “My food is traditional with a touch of Mediterranean,” he says, adding “the menu doesn’t focus on any particular region… Instead we do food from across Italy.” His signature dishes include Barmundi that’s been sautéed in spicy tomato sauce with caper, black olives, chilli and basil. There’s Parma ham wrapped cod fillet served with wilted spinach. And lamb cooked Milanese style, served on truffle scented polenta.

“I know how Indians like their Italian food — they want it spicy, and there should be lots of vegetarian options on the menu.” Instead of compromising on authenticity, he works around the challenge by suggesting dishes from specific regions that work. Sicily, for example, has much spicier food than the rest of Italy. Chef Massimo’s favourite thing on the menu, however, is risotto. “We have many kinds: porcini risotto, black truffle risotto, asparagus risotto…” Ottimo’s Chefs state that they’ve never found it a challenge to sell the idea of Italian fine dining in the city as customers are now open to experimentation, and eager to learn.

Revamp on the anvil?

Meanwhile, rumour has it that Taj Coromandel’s Prego — the restaurant that started it all — is planning a revamp. Although Executive Chef Alok Anand carefully skirts the issue of whether they’re going to turn into a more casual restaurant, he does say that they want to remain ‘exclusive’. “When we began we wanted to serve authentic Italian food — not just run-of-the-mill pizzas and pasta, which you get everywhere,” he says, explaining why they kept Italy’s most iconic product off the menu. (They did, however, offer a quirky ‘Nanza’ – petit naans topped with spicy olives – as a compromise.)

Stating that it wasn’t easy, because “Prego was ahead of its time,” he adds that ironically the restaurant’s biggest hurdle was also its biggest strength. “There’s a mindset people have about Italian food that is difficult to change. But we have great wines and our food is unique… So gradually people started coming to us when they wanted to enjoy a world class meal. We were the only people doing this kind of speciality Italian food, and so we were the ones who were educating and exposing the city to new flavours.”

He adds, “If it was just a question of economics, we would have changed the restaurant one or two years down the line… But we still have guests who come to us because we do food that is special.” (Think Parmesan cheese soufflé served with spicy tomato gelato. Foie Gras Filled Gnocchi. And Olive oil chocolate mousse.) They’re still debating what direction Prego will take. Either way, one thing’s for sure, the restaurant started the ball rolling, and now the city won’t look back.

Expand your Italian

Prego, Taj Coromandel

Parma ham with red wine poached pears, walnuts and goat’s cheese

Marscapone Agnolotti with sundried tomato and brown butter

Foccaccia, Hyatt Regency

Fish cooked in bell pepper sauce

Chocolate salami

Ottimo, Grand Chola

Steamed escalope of Atlantic salmon stuffed with spinach and crab meat

Chicken breast stuffed with spinach and mozzarella, deep fried and served with spicy tomato sauce.