The story begins in the winter of 1986 (have any of my stories been short, sweet, or quick? So, why expect anything less now?), when two young men, my kid brother (aged 12) and myself (aged 14), embarked on our first ever “phoren” trip on a highly subsidised Air India crew ticket, flying only for the second time in our conscious lives, with Capt Anil Gadgil on the right hand seat, serving as the first officer on the Bombay-Fiumicino (as both airports were then called, long back) direct Air India flight (discontinued in the early 2000s, and redirected via Delhi now). The aircraft, if I remember correctly, was either an Airbus 300 or 310.
Before we embarked on this trip, my recently retired-from-the-IAF, very “propah” father told us that as the children of the cockpit crew, we are expected to be dressed in suits (for those interested, I have discussed his views here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/clothes-maketh-man-kedar-gadgil/), behave like gentlemen, and not make a nuisance of ourselves. He instructed me to ensure that my kid brother did not get into (nor create any) trouble, ending his long list of instructions with “Don’t spoil it now.”, the idea being that now that he had managed to get us visas, get us packed, get us seated, and get us permission to stay in his company-assigned room at the Holiday Inn in Rome, we were to make every effort not to “eff it up” after all this good stuff being achieved towards what was to be a memorable vacation, our first without mom, who was so worried that we’d get kidnapped in Europe that she had sewed labels in our underwear with our names, addresses, passport numbers, and something else (probably a small note in Italian promising ransom or something, I don’t remember).
The Rome trip in itself was, as above described, memorable. The way Europeans kept their historical structures and buildings, the art, both inside and outside buildings, the stylish people (you know Italians!), the attractive way in which they spoke (their accents and the movement of their hands), the vehicles (not just the beautifully designed cars but also the cute scooters and the frankly intimidating motorcycles, especially of the nattily dressed police), the uniforms, the weather, the Vatican (yes, we were lucky to be there on Christmas day and saw the Pope), and of course, the subject of this post, the food, were all like a sensory feast to our Indian minds and souls! It was a fantasyland, and we were awestruck, not knowing whether to look hither or thither as sight upon sight, smell upon smell, and taste upon taste washed onto us like waves crashing on a beach on a full moon night. There was so much to take in, and so much that both, Abhi (my kid brother) and I remembered from this trip, that we carried its memories for the rest of our lives. But since this post is about food, I shall stick to food, though not in detail, but enough to say that we tasted heaven. We weren’t old enough to drink, but the first pizza (no, they weren’t round, but sold per weight, freshly pulled out from the oven, in square trays not unlike the ones holding the barfis in Indian halwai shops, and served on old newspapers), the first pasta (we didn’t even know they came in so many shapes or colours!), the first taste of minestrone (like nothing we had had in Mumbai, even though the names were the same!), the first espresso, the first gelato, and other such authentic firsts were very much part of the experience. We were hooked to Italian food, and through the almost month-long stay there (yes, dad was on a posting and we tagged along, bunking our school even though our Christmas holidays were about 10 days, if I remember correctly), we never searched for nor had anything but the authentic local fare that the resident Romans were eating. And while I went back to Italy, and not just to Rome, so often in my life that one of my passports was almost 80% full with stamps just of the Italian immigration, this first trip was when we fell in love with the country.
Of course, Baba’s words before he left for work (he did quite a few hops from Rome to Frankfurt, Berlin, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Paris, etc) every day would be, “I am glad you’re having a great time. Don’t spoilt it now.” And we didn’t.
Cut to my Dubai days in the early part of the 2000s, where as a resident, I could afford to regularly taste authentic Italian food once again (Quattro, at the Four Seasons Golf Club, for example), after missing it greatly in India. I wished someone could offer such fare in my country. I soon discovered Little Italy in Pune and later, Dario’s, and was thrilled that finally, I can count on at least two places to go to. All the time, I prayed, “Don’t spoil it now.”, always worrying that while the standard of taste and authenticity was on point in their early days, they do not slip. I will not comment on their standards lately, but suffice to say that I was looking for new places that offer great Italian food for quite some time before I gave up, having lost hope that anyone could come close to the real McCoy after these two decided to “go native” and become thoroughly Indianised.
(Note: Friends, PEOkars, please note that I do NOT blame them. They are in this to make money. They will cater to their markets. And it is their money they are risking, not mine. So, I have zero right or authority to speak on their choices. In other words, they are honourable men indeed. Besides, food is subjective, and I am sure both restaurants employ native Italian chefs to design their menus and recipes, and I am no expert on Italian food. Also, I come here neither to praise nor to bury them. In fact, I have nothing to say about any other restaurant than the one I write about. I hope that is that and no one thinks this post is about them. I have taken great care to write this and I am telling myself, “Don’t spoil it now” by derailing the discussion!).
So, it was with absolutely zero expectations that I entered Chianti Ristorante Pune on the 3rd Floor at the Phoenix Marketcity – Pune, where we had made bookings using Natasha Singh-Gadgil‘s PEO Card for 3 adults (besides me, my Maa, Tasha, and the girl, Kym) and opted for the set meal (4 courses: drink, antipasti/zuppa, primo, and dolci) at Rs.595+taxes each.
The exteriors of the place are, to be honest, tacky, with a square golden arch below the garishly lit orange neon signs that name the restaurant in Roman (SWIDT?) and Devnagari scripts. Also, it is reached via the food court, which means that if you are really hungry, chances are you’d get tempted to grab a quick bite downstairs even before you get to the restaurant. This is akin to how they get you to pass through ALL the duty free shops (or one-armed bandits, in case of Las Vegas) before you reach your boarding gate at an international airport, forcing you to run the gauntlet, so to say, before you are safe. Not, suffice to say, an auspicious beginning.
Thankfully inside, it is quite pleasant, and while it doesn’t really remind me of any place I have been in Italy, it doesn’t put me off. That’s good enough for me. I come to eat, not to critique interiors, though a nice place doesn’t hurt.
Anyway, we seat ourselves down and immediately, the waiter tells us that the choice for the beverage (as part of the deal) is very limited and we can only have a cold drink or a Strawberry Italian Soda, which is what we ordered. For those who have never had the (guilty) pleasure of having this concoction, which is unhealthy, a tacky (there’s that word again) pink in colour, saccharine sweet and ice cold (with bits of crushed ice in it), bubbly & bubble-gummy, and topped with cream (yes, whipped cream on soda), which you have to mix thoroughly before sipping, you haven’t lived life yet! We quickly down three, with all of fighting like kids for a sip, to the puzzlement and consternation of the 5-year-old who wonders aloud why she thinks she is the adult in this group of grandmom and parents! I am thinking to myself that this seems like a place that might just have good (and authentic) Italian food (at least the menu makes me think that) given how they nailed the soda, and I remember telling my wife that I hope they don’t go and spoil it now.
There is a reason for that sentiment creeping in. And that is the first edible thing they brought to us required some assembly, which means that all we got in the name of Bruschetta was slices of baguette, a few cloves of garlic, some basil, and some cherry tomatoes, which, along with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar already on the table, coupled with the salt & pepper (also on the table), made up this almost-dish, for the actual preparation of which instructions were listed on a card on each table. There are several problems with that, of which I shall opine on just one for brevity’s (ha!) sake: the Indian safed garlic, while being far superior in terms of flavour as compared to the artichoke garlics used in Italian cuisine, is too small to hold in one’s fingers and rub over the bread, not to mention the aftertaste that requires a bar of Dettol (or perhaps even Harpic!) to get rid of later. Suffice to say, we sent it back (though it was on-the-house and not part of the deal) and demanded a Crostini pre-prepared, which quickly arrived from the kitchen, and was, to my utter surprise, absolutely superb. The bread wasn’t toasted to a point of scarring our upper palates like the sharp Roman hastae, the vegetables had the perfect crunch of freshness without being undercooked, and the whole damn thing remained perched on it as intended by the chef, despite three clumsy hands picking it up and biting into it. Do they use Fevicol, I wondered (perhaps mastiha, since it is Italian food…or was that used by the Greeks? Well, it is all Latin to me, to be honest)! Anyway, three pieces of this and three adults on the table. We simply didn’t know where it all went as we polished it off in less time it takes to learn how to pronounce “Bruschetta” (no, it isn’t what you’d think).
We had also ordered two salads, a veg Isalata di Verdure for Maa (she’s vegetarian) and an Insalata di Caesar (good old Caesar Salad, because we wanted to play it safe, and then of course, it’s about some Italian Caesar, right? In a way, because this Caesar wasn’t really a ruler of Rome but a hotelier in Mexico, but that is another story for another time) with chicken for sharing between Tasha and the girl. Both salads were fresh to the point we wondered if they had a small little farm back there, crunchy, well-tossed, and so lightly but so elegantly dressed that I could have taken them out to a formal black-tie party had my mom and wife not wolfed them down (as my daughter chomped away the chicken in the Caesar Salad with great relish). As an aside, the founding myth of Rome is that it was established by the twin brothers Remus and Romulus, who were raised by a she-wolf. And while the killing of one brother (Remus) but the other (Romulus) is the stuff of many a religious legends, the quantity on the salad plates was enough to warrant no threats to anyone’s life as we all dug in and shared the two plates quite equitably. The Insalata di Verdure is literally “leafy green salad” and leafy it was, and green, and with little pieces of grilled veggies and what seemed like farm-fresh Mozzarella (you should try putting a spoon of really good freshly made mozzarella in your mouth and let it just lie their without chewing, and you’ll know what Mozzarella can be, and also why sometimes food and sex are equated, but then, as I said, that is another story), the whole of which had just been paid a flying visit by a pesto dressing who kind of came, had a few drinks, and left, without being an overbearing and uncivilised boor and taking over the conversation. The Caesar salad was, as if to match its rival on the table, as crunchy (iceberg lettuce, FTW!) and fresh while showing off its croutony side, though let down by the staid Parmesan cheese, which while a brilliant Parmesan cheese in its own right, could not possibly compete with the sex appeal of the Mozzarella. I should emphasise though that the Crostini and the Insalatas were polished off in a time period shorter than it took to write this paragraph, or, if you are so inclined, less time than it took a Roman phalanx to turn to its flank.
I was having a good time. Which means I was also scared that now they are going to serve us something totally in character to Indian-Italian restaurants and it will mess up the entire experience, which has been surprisingly good till this point. I called the captain and told him categorically that we loved the starters and are keenly awaiting the main course, though with the trepidation as abovementioned. “Don’t spoilt it now,” I pleaded with my eyes.
My fears were unfounded though. Maa had ordered a veg Lasagna Al Forno for herself. Now, normally, I have become accustomed to the surfeit of cheese (why?) on lasagna in Indian restaurants. I have also come to expect the food to blow up inside my mouth, like Rome burning in 64CE, because of the insistence of our chefs to Indianise this delicate dish and “spice it up” for some reason. But in this case, the spice played second fiddle in the gentle Bolognese sauce and the cheese was worn around the the pasta like a soft white toga. My 69yo mother ate as if she was 19 again! I had ordered the Costolette di Maiale, which is just fancy Italian for pork chops. Or at least that is what I thought. Until I ate them…and realised that I owe this dish an apology, not just for the brilliant taste of both, the well-grilled chops as well as the amazing herb-infused potato mash (which thankfully did not have enough butter to give me a mild coronary, the problem I face at other dining places), but for the exquisite plating, completely unfit and beneath its station to be referred to simply as “pork chops”. So, as I stuffed my face with the said slow-cooked porcine remains, I called for and looked up the menu to make sure I got the name of this dish right, for that is the least that poor pig deserved. Tasha, being the doting mother of a Peppa-loving kid, passed on the pig and ordered a Pollo Al Ripieni, which is chicken breast stuffed with Mozzarella (there we go again!), Asparagus, and Sage, sautéed in olive oil (the Italians rarely use any other, to be honest, and every time you say “oil” to the Italians, unless you are a shareholder of Eni S.p.A., or are a CIA spy stationed in Tempa Rossa looking to start a war, it would mean olive oil, even if you are a Sicilian running Genco Pura from New York’s Mott Street). But that is not the half of it. It is served with baby potatoes that are sautéed too in a manner so gentle that the process probably takes care not to offend their delicate sensitivities, leave alone the supple skin on their tubery beings.
Even after all this, there was a slight problem: We were still hungry, not because our stomachs hadn’t had enough, but because our eyes, our noses, and our hearts hadn’t. We decided to take a chance of screwing up this till-now amazing culinary afternoon and ordering something from the à la carte menu (funnily, “à la carte” in French means “by or from the menu” and so, the additional word, “menu” is redundant. But then redundant words is how we roll, so…). Tasha decided it would be the Pollo Satimbocca (described in the menu as “Pan seared chicken with parma ham served with ratatouille and mashed potatoes in its own jus,” with the word “jus” simply meaning “juice” as it ought to have been spelt in the first place). It delivered as advertised, though not before I warned the maitre d’, “Don’t spoil it now.” before ordering it. The ham wasn’t to Tasha’s liking, but the rest of it was gobbled up by the little one. No, wait, that is not strictly true. I had the mashed potatoes. Why? Because.
Honestly, by now I had started to believe that the next dish we order is going to be a disaster and I even warned my wife and my mom on those lines, so that they stop ordering more and we can end this while we (and Chianti) are ahead. So, the “Don’t spoil it now” was more an appeal, an imploration, and a fond hope for me to be wrong, rather than any real warning. It was almost as if I had crossed the Alps with elephants and was mortally afraid to meet Scipio’s army at the foothills as soon as I descended on the Italian side! I just wanted to stop and savour the last ordered dish’s taste in my mouth as I walked out triumphantly proclaiming, “Veni, vedi, edi, bibi” having escaped disappointment by the skin of my teeth. It seemed, though, that the three women in my life (Maa, Tasha, and Kymaia) were determined to test our run of good luck right till the end, and I was really getting nervous at the moment. Should I be worrying about the future more than good old Julius did when he stepped out that day in the middle of March? Or is it better to let go and allow the future to take its own course? Are the barbarians at the gate? Or is it another mouth-watering dish being brought from the kitchen? I decided to throw caution to the wind, but not before warning the server about the desserts, “Don’t spoil it now, mate.”
I was serious.The dolci had Tiramisu, which was perhaps the most authentic one I have eaten for a while; the perfect blend of bitter and sweet, soft and firm, white and brown and chocolatey, and plated like it was a straight lift from some reality tv show. And that was followed by the Panna Cotta, in whose praises, if I were a poet, I would have written an epic. But I am no Virgil. Hell, I am just a Gadgil. So, this post has to do. The Panna Cotta didn’t come alone to the party though. It got its friends, the berry compote and the strawberry ice-cream along for the ride. Now, I do not know how the ice-cream tasted, because both scoops in both plates were instantly ingested by my little one, who’d give Garfield the cat tough competition when it comes to downing her favourite food (I think I missed a trick there with the Lasagna though). And hence, all I can tell you about the Panna Cotta is that it is a bad idea to call for 2 plates between 3 people if you aren’t a trained MMA fighter. To cut a long story short, I had to withdraw with my honour intact and allow my wife and mother to devour the last dish of the day. I did, however, taste a couple of spoons of it and have this to say: It is said that a Hungarian woman invented this in the Piedmont region in the 1960s. I want to hazard a guess that were she here in Pune and living today, she’d have kissed the hands of the chef for the perfection that was served on the plate at the end of the amazing meal.
I thought of ordering coffee, an espresso, to wash down the meal and cleanse my palate. They have a pod machine that uses capsules. I told the maitre d’ that this does not sound encouraging and I really can do without the brew if he isn’t sure about the quality, to which he replied that I should be rest assured. I said, “Don’t spoil it now.” as my wife and my mom both complimented the restaurant, the choice of menu, and the chef (we met the manager, one Mr.Vishnu, a sweet chap who blushed a lot for some reason). I really wanted this not to be messed up due to a measly cup of coffee. I was, thankfully, proven wrong, and the coffee was more than adequate in taste, temperature, and aroma.
We had entered a party of 3.5 people, and exited a satisfied party of 5.5, with an additional 2 people’s worth of weight added to us! It was indeed a scary experience because every time they brought in the perfect dish, I would be fearful for the next one.
I have but one thing to say to the owners/managers/chefs of this place, because I know what happens when they receive raving reviews and start building a reputation of having never done wrong: Don’t let hubris set in. Don’t slack on this. Keep the standards up. Keep delighting the customer. Don’t spoil it now!
P.S: I am a bit rusty after almost a year’s exile from reviewing. The voice is all over the place, the ending lacks the usual punch, and it is too long, even by my standards. I almost did not post this. But then, I realised I am within friends. If they cannot see me at my lowest and still cheer me, what point is it to have friends at all, eh? So, my dear well-wishers, please allow me some leeway and forgive me some transgressions till I come up to speed. It’s good to be back!