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Avanti, avanti

ITalia's menu has had a scrumptious makeover



Authentic Italian food at ITalia

CHEF MANDAAR Sukhtankar is a brave man. An Indian chef in a true-blue Italian restaurant. Not only does he have to ignore second, quizzical looks, but also has to stand his ground when any question is raised — about the subtle differences between Sicilian and Tuscan food, between American Italian and European Italian.

Take the time when an American couple came to dine at ITalia, The Park hotels' Italian restaurant where Chef Mandaar has the last word on what goes to the tables. They were quite certain that Marinara sauce has absolutely no seafood. It took all of Mandaar's persuasive powers ("you can't tell them they are wrong," he points out) and some authentic Italian recipe books to convince them that the very word Marinara comes from marine, the word for sea.

Mandaar owes his courage and certainty to his mentor, Chef Antonio Carluccio, rated as one of the top five chefs by BBC. As he trained under him in London, he learnt not just how to cook some of the most sumptuous Italian food, but also much of the philosophy behind the food. One of the tenets that he follows scrupulously is: minimum of fuss and maximum of flavour. ITalia is a manifestation of that principle.

The décor is minimalistic. No paintings or pictures. Plain walls, tastefully touched with fabric, some mirrors, probably to enhance the feel of space in the small place. Plain white cutlery in geometric forms. Only the rare brilliant green ashtray brings the touch of colour on the table. "Food here is a serious business; we don't want anything to distract from it," explains Mandaar, pouring out the olive oil and touching it up with a dash of Balsamic vinegar for the basket of bread that we were starting our meal with.

Absolutely. Especially when the meal is a celebration of the fertility of the earth. ITalia is celebrating the Italian festival of Calendimaggio, which, according to Mandaar, is similar to our Baisaki and Pongal. It is the festival of spring and therefore, a time for feasting.

We skipped the soup and went on to the pizzetta with sautéed onions and rosemary and prosciutto di Parma, which simply redefined what a pizza is. Forget those American pizza outlets, this is the real McCoy. The crust was wafer thin, the dressings just right.


The bocconcini salad was a delight. The pine nuts sprinkled over the oven-dried tomatoes and the fresh lettuce lent that special taste. What burst in your mouth, however, was the olive oil mixed with the vinaigrette. "We don't stint on the olive oil," points out Mandaar, "we use it for cooking as well as generous amounts on the table."

The classic spaghetti carbonara style was a surprise. No heavy cream to make it sit like putty in the tummy. Just the cheese and the eggs coating the spaghetti and the ham. For the vegetarians, there is a cap-shaped pasta stuffed with mushroom — not my favourite, but generous helpings of the garlic olive oil and chilli sauce help it rise up to standards.

In the risottos, the risotto of roast pumpkin, mascarpone, lemon and marjoram has subtle flavours while the one with the shrimp, is stronger and more interesting.

The roast fillet of veal is wrapped in pancetta and flavoured with a sage and red wine sauce: absolutely brilliant. The veal is done to perfection and the sauce tickles your tongue. What was completely unbeatable was the Gnudi — spinach and semolina dumplings. Delectable. They come with balsamic tossed artichokes and broccoli. And, for those of you who don't believe there is a dish called the Gnudi and want to pick a bone with Mandaar, be prepared to lick your wounds.

Desserts are colourful, in more ways than one. The plates change — from the pristine white to a blazing range — and they are tastefully presented. The tiramisu is as it should be — rich and light, with the coffee flavour unmistakably cheerful. The classic Sicilian canoli is uplifted by the mixed berry sauce. The Semifreddo is honeyed and served with pine nuts — a fitting finale to a wonderful dinner.

The Calendimaggio festival is from May 1 to 5. Don't miss it. And look out for some more Italian festivals coming by Italia.

KANCHAN KAUR

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