Interview David Rocco, best known for his TV series, has found a way to Indian hearts through Italian cuisine
From Dolce Vita to Dolce India. David Rocco is eating his way through India, and loving it. Crisp Rajasthani ghevar, steaming kachoris and his favourite new breakfast: anda bhurji. Between all this he even managed to get a haircut at the fruit and vegetable market in Mumbai for Rs. 40.
Best known for the TV series David Rocco’s Dolce Vita , Rocco focuses on casual Italian cooking. He’s authored two popular books David Rocco’s Dolce Vita and Made In Italy . His new show, David Rocco’s Amalfi Getaway , is currently airing on Fox Traveller. Meanwhile he’s location scouting in India, in preparation for his ambitious new series, inspired by the many parallels he sees between Indian and Italy.
“I’m in India for two weeks, mainly Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur…” he says, in a phone interview. “I had been thinking about this for a year. I get a lot of messages from Indian fans. Initially I thought I’ll just come here and learn about Indian food. Then I realised how much Indians love Italian food.” The idea is to create Italian-style meals that are inspired by India. “I’ll use Italian techniques. Where I can’t find Italian ingredients, I will improvise with Indian ones. I’m going to challenge myself. Go out of my comfort zone.”
Rocco says he’s never tried this before, and India seems like the perfect place for this experiment. “I think India is the country closest to Italy. We have more in common than any other country. Our strong family ties, the food culture…” He adds with a laugh, “And Indians are dysfunctional like Italians. The chaos, the traffic... I come from Naples. And it makes Mumbai look like an English village!”
He adds that he’s noticed startling parallels in the food. “Some of the flavours are so familiar. I ate a fish gravy in Chennai that brought back memories of Italian food. It has coconut and similar spices. And it was made with a mellow approach, deepened by stewing tomato paste. The flavour was so rich. If I closed my eyes I could imagine that I was having this meal at my mom’s house.”
USP of shows
Despite so many food shows jostling for attention, Rocco says his shows have managed to retain their audiences. “Everyone and their dog seem to be doing cooking shows now,” he chuckles. “We want to inspire people to cook together. To enjoy the rite of cooking, not just learn how to make food. You can do that with Google. Or just read a recipe book.” He adds, “I joke that I’m not a chef — I’m an Italian. Cooking is a birthright for us. Indian culture is like this. Italians and Indians are very passionate about food. With the English — they couldn’t care less about what they eat.” His staunchly Italian family with proud food traditions has been an asset, even though he didn’t always think so. “I grew up in a very Anglo-Saxon neighbourhood in Toronto. Growing up, I always thought of us as the poor immigrants. When the rest of the kids were bringing peanuts butter and jelly sandwiches to school, my lunch box would contain pasta, risotto and rabbit. Remember this was the 70s, when all this was considered exotic. The kids next door kept rabbits as pets, and we ate them! I was scared I would get my head kicked in for being different.” He adds, “I lived with the embarrassment, because I loved the food. It wasn’t just the eating — it was the celebratory nature of eating in my house.”
His love affair with Italian food continues with David Rocco Amalfi Getaway . “I love the sophistication, the luxury of the Amalfi coast. Most of all, I love the simplicity of the food.” He adds, “You go to a five star hotel, or a small café and you’ll get bread and tomatoes. And it will be delicious. As Italians, we’ve mastered that. The ability to use a few great ingredients to make a memorable meal. In Italy, you can stop at the gas station and eat very well. In Spain and France you have to go to a good restaurant to eat well.”
Rocco says Italy’s quality ingredients are what make the food so special. “You can make a fabulous spaghetti with just olive oil, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and Amalfi lemon. The integrity of those ingredients is so powerful.” This is why, he says, Italians stick to tradition. “In Amalfi there is a savoury cookie shaped like a bagel, it’s double baked, and has been made for the past 300 years. Fishermen take them out to sea, tying them to the boat.
When they’re ready to eat, they dip it in sea water, add tomato and onion, and eat it. I love the fact that the same dish is prepared in the most expensive hotels in Capri. They use salt water instead of sea water, of course, but otherwise it’s exactly the same. Bread, tomato, onions. It’s amazing. Why mess with that?”
‘David Rocco’s Amalfi Getaway’ airs every Friday at 8.30 p.m. on FOX Traveller