“Look into my eyes” says Dario. He leans forward. I lean forward. He smiles. I smile. He picks up a cheese ball. I pick up a cheese ball. Pause. It’s difficult to be charming and handle stretchy mozzarella at the same time. We chew thoughtfully. “Polpette di spinaci e formaggio,” he says, in his distinctive Italian accent. I go weak in the knees. Spinach cheese balls. With a creamy spinach dip. What could be more alluring?
“So, my eyes,” he continues. “Ah. Yes. Eyes,” I say, giving what I’m hoping is an attentive nod, even as I sneakily grab a roasted mushroom, piled with potent garlic and drizzled with golden olive oil. “They’re blue.” I lean forward to inspect them. “Yes. Blue,” I concur. He continues, “But my hair. It’s black.” I stop mid-chew. “Well,” he says bashfully, “Okay. It used to be!” He continues. “That’s the French and Arabic influence. Sicily is very multi-cultural, and it shows in our food. We have Greek, Turkish, Arabic people… And they have all come together to create a cuisine that is mostly vegetarian.”
We’re in his charming new Dario’s Restaurant Café, surrounded by quirky versions of the Mona Lisa, flipping through the all-vegetarian menu. “Even in Sicily, 80 per cent of the food is vegetarian. If you look at a pizza menu, there will be a maximum of 14 pizzas, and out of those maybe two will be non-vegetarian. Most people eat vegetarian food everyday. Then maybe on Sunday they have a non-vegetarian lasagne.”
Dario came to India almost 25 years ago on a holiday. “I came to learn Iyengar yoga. Fell in love with the country. And never left,” he smiles. Based in Pune for the first four years, he spent his time learning yoga and travelling. “I didn’t work at all,” he shrugs, “I was spending money. Family money.” He rolls his eyes. “My father was livid!”
Although he came from a family that ran restaurants in Sicily, he didn’t think an Italian restaurant would work in India — at first. “I called my bank manager home for spaghetti arrabiata. He began eating with his hands. There was sauce everywhere… Like someone was killing him!” Dario laughs. “He said, ‘You must start an Italian restaurant.’ And I said, ‘Are you mad? If everyone eats like this — imagine how much I’ll have to pay for table cloths.”
Despite his best intentions, he couldn’t stay away from the stove. He finally decided to revamp a small unsuccessful Italian restaurant in Pune with two partners. “I called it Little Italy. We did a whole new menu of vegetarian pastas, pizzas and salads… I was young those days — with lots of energy.” The restaurant was so successful he went on to open branches in Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Delhi before moving on. “I left them about eight-nine years ago, and started work as a chef at the Intercontinental hotel in Mumbai, setting up their Italian restaurant Corleone.”
Then, he launched Dario’s three years ago. “I opened it in Pune first. After all, that is where I started…” He adds, “I wanted home food. Nothing pretentious. Most Indians, I’ve noticed, are not interested in extremely fancy places. They want honest cooking. Value for money. We aim to make food that Sicilian people eat everyday. Not just tasty, but also healthy.” He says it’s very different from his first menu for Little Italy. “Because of experience, yes. But also my energy is different now.”
Given the inescapable fact that eating more vegetarian food is not just better for you, but also the planet, it’s encouraging to see how spunky the menu is. Inventive, colourful and expansive, it proves that ‘vegetarian’ food offers limitless options. We try Sukunianu, spicy olives with Sardinian matured cheese, presented on a plate like dramatic jewellery: Fat tart olives strung with wickedly red chillies. There’s buttery garlic bread topped with tangy sundried tomato pate, cool slivers of artichoke and sharp cream cheese.
“Our food is special because it’s cooked with love,” says Dario. “Everything is a question of love. If you do something only to make money, without love, no money will come. It’s very simple mathematics.”
Dario’s Restaurant Café is at 11, Kasturi Rangan Road, 2nd Street, Alwarpet. Call 4919 3333 for details.