SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY catches up with Ritu Dalmia, who has made Italian cuisine popular in Delhi
Photos Shanker Chakravarty
Sautéed with love Ritu Dalmia at the wine cellar of Diva in New Delhi
Pastas with pestos, pomodoro and penelle, cheese with wine. Or say, the feel of oregano or dried basil on your fingertips, and the hiss of the melting Parmesan on a smoking hot wok.
For the bubbly Delhiite Ritu Dalmia, these are not mere combinations of Italian ingredients, or crumbs of experience that stem from occasionally cooking a European dish. Their reach for her is much deeper. They are the flesh and blood of her long “love affair” with the cuisine of Italy — that slice of the Mediterranean region famed for sprouting ravishing men tied to their mama’s apron strings, for their wives just can’t match her pasta!
Flashing that bomb of a wide grin, looking much trimmed down since our last meeting a good three years ago at Diva, her signature Italian restaurant at New Delhi’s Greater Kailash, Ritu, at Diva again, basks in the glow of her lingering romance with the cuisine. As always.
Actually, we are to talk about her book, “Italian Khana”, just published by Random House, India, and bypass the oft-asked questions like why such a feverish interest in only Italian food after all!
But invariably, the conversation begins from ground zero. “Italian food is not just about food alone, it is the entire experience that draws me to it,” with dreamy eyes, an easy-going Ritu flips open a little window into the core of her fascination that overtook her at sweet sixteen. It also led her to burn her fingers at age 21. That was when she started Mezzaluna, perhaps the city’s first standalone Italian restaurant.
Interestingly, Ritu, a dropout from the Convent of Jesus and Mary, had gone to Italy to augment her father’s marble business at 16 but soon returned with the seed of Mezzaluna in mind.
“I found that country amazing. Wherever I went, I just saw food around me. It was then natural for me to have thought of starting Mezzaluna here,” says Ritu, narrowing her almond eyes.
Being a Marwari, she grew up on vegetarian food. And whenever, as a family, they travelled across Europe, Italian vegetarian food was the only option on the table.
“Also, once, I went on a school excursion to Italy and I ate just minestrone soup and vegetable pomodoro for 10 days straight, but I just loved it,” she recalls.
But the real change came when she returned with her father’s business in mind.
But Mezzaluna was a bad idea in pre-liberalised India. Not quite suitable to run a restaurant that needed foreign ingredients.
“What all I did to get just a packet of Parmesan cheese! I pleaded with pilots to whoever was travelling to Italy to get things for me. Even laying your hands on a packet of spaghetti noodles was a big thing then.”
Vama in London
Looking back, she states, laughing, “What to do, being impulsive is my defect.”
Well, it also served as a balm during her days of failure, much before she discovered the magic of Vipassana meditation. “I always live from one minute to another. I soon fled, to London, to start Vama, my Indian restaurant,” she says.
Not the type to give up, Ritu returned in 2000 to start Diva. It clicked! To Diva goes the credit of making Italian food a fabulous fine dining experience in the city that had once rejected her. “At the expense of blowing my own trumpet,” she says, “I don’t think Diva can be repeated. There will be no second Diva from me though I am expanding in other ways.” By that she means her Italian cafes like Divattra at The Ashok. She has also been running the Italian Cultural Centre café for eight years.
Coming to her cookbook, Ritu announces, “I had a blast doing it.”
“This miss know-it-all” took nine months to rustle it up though. “Testing the recipes took a lot of time,” she says about her attempt to bring simple Italian food to Indian homes. “The name itself suggests that it is not for an international audience,” she underlines.
Not willing to format it “region-wise or say, meat-chicken-fish-dessert dishes,” she voted for the mood factor.
“Food, I feel, has a lot to do with your mood. If you are cooking for friends or family, it is different from cooking for your lover.”
The book has also been turned into a series on NDTV Good Times from this past Wednesday. “Please watch it. We have just returned from an 18-day shoot across Italy. Initially, it will cover only five chapters. It features my friend Ferda and also Serra, with whom I discovered the joys of Italian food,” she says.
With the conversation veering to an end, Ritu insists you taste her food. “Otherwise, I would feel offended,” she declares.
You give in to her choice of poached prawns, pumpkin soufflé and a light John Dory fish dish to die for. Walking out of Diva, you can’t help wishing all the stars in the sky for Ritu, the Diva.
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