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Pizza, Italian style

Passionate about pizzas? At Bella Ciao, Nungambakkam, you can eat the real thing



Taste of Italy: At Bella Ciao on Nungambakkam High Road — Pic. by R. Ragu

"IT'S AN old Italian song that children sing," says Ciro Cattaneo thoughtfully, looking around his charming, very-Mediterranean restaurant. He bashfully goes on to hum a line, and then apologetically grins, "Well, I can't sing... but I love the song. Even though it's so sad."

And although Bella Ciao's blonde-haired, blue-eyed owner-chef can't explain why he named his restaurant after the song of the Italian partisans of World War II, he does love telling the story behind it. "Ciao is goodbye," he says, "It's a song about a soldier's wish. To be buried in the mountains beneath a beautiful flower... if he has to die for liberty."

Authentic pizza

Ciro's clearly a patriot. Which could explain why he gets misty eyed about the Italian countryside. And why he's so obsessive about authentic Italian pizza.

"In Italy, we are thinking of making a law about pizza," he says. "It must be made in a wood oven, with a specific quantity of flour, yeast and water. Only then can it be called `pizza'." Although, almost everywhere else in the world, people grow up on the pizzas of the big cheeses, sorry, chains - bubbling with mozzarella, piled high with salami and drowned in ketchup - Ciro says it's time for pizza to return to its roots. "It's very traditional food. Very homely. The poor people eat it a lot... because it uses fresh, easily available ingredients. All that you need to make a good pizza is mozzarella and a fresh tomato sauce."

And, of course, the irreplaceable Italian wood fire oven. "It's 300 degrees inside," he says, walking around Bella Ciao's red brick oven, and pointing into its gaping, fiery interior, kept alive by small crackling logs. "Real pizza needs to taste of smoke, of wood."

Signature dish

Pizzas have always been Bella Ciao's signature dish. When Ciro opened his first restaurant in a tiny room in Besant Nagar, he had clients lined up on the pavement. So he eventually moved to Valmiki Nagar, where the restaurant is currently located, in a large open garden. "But, that's so far away," he sighs, explaining why he has now opened another outlet, this time on Nungambakkam High Road. Although the new Bella Ciao — set on a terrace — still concentrates on being a place to lounge, it's a lot more stylish, with seats scattered with raw silk cushions and sheer curtains draped between them.

Just don't go there in the afternoon. They won't need to use their oven, the pizzas will bake beautifully, right on your head.

"Well, it's more a dinner place," shrugs Ciro. Especially in summer.

And hang on to your pizzas, because it can get a little windy, and the pizza's rather thin. My delicate `Bella Ciao' Pizza, brushed with a thick tomato sauce topped with cheese, bacon and mushroom, for instance needed a firm elbow in the middle to be kept in place. (I didn't really want a passing biker to be hit with a pie in the eye.) It came with an uncomplicated Greek salad, made with just sliced tomatoes, chopped cucumber, olives, capers and a sprinkling of feta cheese. And a deliciously creamy pasta, tossed with blue cheese, speckled with mushrooms and spinach.

Although the food is simple, the reason it works is because its ingredients balance each other so competently. The chefs here also reportedly do a great job with pork chops, roasted in the wood oven, and steaks.

Dessert's intensely satisfying: lemon pie and a cup of strong espresso.

A meal for two should cost about Rs. 800. Call 28330085 for reservations.

SHONALI MUTHALALY

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