Italian cuisine is all about simple flavours and prime ingredients but only when the chef gets it right.
There are two major drawbacks with eating out. I'm not even talking of expense (high) and hygiene (suspect). One, our culinary exposure and thence domestic kitchen capabilities have got ramped up. So “arugula and Spanish orange salad with citrus dressing and toasted almond flakes”, while sounding attractive, is no biggie. Any kitchen can assemble it — substituting arugula with some other salad leaves if necessary — or, for that matter, “watermelon and feta salad with fresh herbs”. The herbs are usually mint; watermelon abounds on every fruit seller's pushcart and feta cheese or some hircine equivalent fills local grocery store shelves. So, very few restaurants are exciting.
What is exciting is cooking processes that are difficult for the average home cook: barbecuing, baking — especially high temperature, as for pizza — slow old fashioned cooking, tandoori, delicate difficult desserts.
The other downside with stand-alone restaurants is their inconsistency. The first time you eat there the food is fresh, carefully cooked and presented and the service is eager and welcoming. After some time something happens — either complacency or lack of supervision — the management assumes that customers will continue to come in and, maybe, having other fish to fry, “delegates” to newly trained cooks and leaves to open new outlets or maybe to explore new businesses as diverse as commodity trade or real estate. So the kitchen and waiting staff are left to their own devices. Which, especially in restaurants serving non-Indian food, are so divorced from local tastes and cooking traditions that the cooks cannot be blamed for not getting the flavours right. How can a 20-year-old boy from some part of India know the real taste of an Italian or Cantonese dish; he probably thinks he's doing what he was taught to, quite ignorant of its essence.
I've been to Flavors (sic) of Italy several times in the last few months. The last – as in most recent and as in final, “The End” – time was an experience that I'll forget at my own peril. We were about six, so we had a wide selection to taste. We started with a vegetarian salad, which was bland but not vile; just unremarkable. Then, as another starter, we ordered bruschetta with tomatoes. That was so bad that, as a basic cook, I can break it down to the components that made it inedible.
Basic bruschetta are toasted slices of good quality rustic bread, rubbed with garlic while still warm, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and then sprinkled with salt and a few grindings of pepper. The most popular variation has, in addition, ripe red tomatoes, coarsely chopped, and fresh basil leaves, torn into the tomato mixture. Salt and pepper. That's it, that simple – warm, crusty bread topped with oil, garlic, fresh summer tomatoes and seasoning.
What we had at Flavors was soggy white bread with icy grey tomatoes. The tomato mixture had obviously been made the night before and refrigerated, possibly frozen. The colour was dull, the smell of fresh tomatoes, garlic and good olive oil missing and nary a speck of basil. The whole icy mess was spread on sliced cold white bread and plonked on the table.
The worst parts were the colour and temperature, because a tomato sandwich on plain white bread can be eaten. Only don't call it “bruschetta”. One of us ordered a vegetable lasagne and that seemed to be the same left-over tomato mixture wrapped in sheets of flour, with the added bonus of chopped aubergine. Quite missable.
We also had, among other things, a passable penne in Carbonara sauce. Their pizza is said to be good; and, in the past, it has. That day, as the manager/owner later confessed, they gave us one from the previous day, hastily re-baked, so that the underside was scorched and the whole thing was so dry it tasted of cardboard.
And then came the desserts. We shared a fondant au chocolat (Italian?), lemon something and a blueberry cheesecake. Not surprisingly, the blueberry compote was just some blue coloured jam – where do we have blueberries in India? – but the cheesecake wasn't a cheesecake at all. It was a stiff, stodgy, floury pudding, baked till it was so dry and hard that it could stand unsupported in a Force 10 gale. We had to leave it though we were still hungry, because even water didn't help wash down the starchy lumps stuck to our palates.
Unlike Indian food, which relies heavily on spices, Italian cuisine prides itself on the simplicity of flavours that come from prime ingredients. Today even us desis know that in an Italian dish ham should be seasoned, salt-cured and air-dried, prosciutto or Parma; the pancetta in carbonara is not the same as bacon; tomatoes should be fresh and seasonal; salad leaves crisp, fresh and flavourful; the cheese appropriate to the dish: parmigiano, gorgonzola or mozzarella, mascarpone or ricotta; and a cheesecake, though not of Italian provenance, flimsy and tender.
Some years back a city like Delhi was so new to Italian food that we knew little of anything other than pizza and were thrilled to find even the words “antipasti” and “gnocchi” on a restaurant menu. Now we have to be grateful to travel, TV food shows and the restaurant pioneers who made these household words.
If only these same entrepreneurs, who must, somewhere, sometime, have loved food and delighted in serving the best they could, had maintained their commitment and understood that their customers' palates too were now worthy of respect.