To dine at Little Italy in Juhu is like dining in Rome or Milan. The restaurant has been there (18-B, Juhu Tara Road, near Maneckji Cooper School) for two years, an okay place like so many other Indian Italians, with coriander in pesto to suit Indian tastes. Then, three months back, it acquired the services of Viovanni Federico Autummo, Mumbai's resident Italian, and it has changed beyong recognition. It has become authentic. Genuine Italian lasagne that you may pick with your fork, gnocchi with a pasta skin no thicker than 3 mm., pizza crusts from the oven and not the refrigerator, and the best tirami-su in the country, espresso Italiano. If all this sounds like Greek to you, it is not...it is Latin. Half the pleasure of eating at Little Italy is meeting Giovanni, he is like one of those TV chefs demonstrating on foreign channels, bubbling with enthusiasm like a fondue on fire. The first thing he did when I went there was reprimand me: "Si, you are a food critic and never you come here! It is very wrong. You did not come only because it is Juhu and you are south of Bombay."
"Si," I said. After that, he was all charm. Little Italy is a challenge to him, after giving up restaurant cooking for nearly ten years, the old juices are flowing again. And the main challenge is that Little Italy is vegetarian. He is finding new ways of disguising this fact...when you eat here, you will not miss the meat. That is my guarantee for whatever it is worth.
The story is told about how Meher Moos, who headed the Indian tourism office in Milan for several years and is familiar and fond of Italian food, took some friends for dinner at Little Italy and asked Giovanni in advance to prepare a pasta a la puttanesca. The dish requires anchovy, and the restaurant being vegetarian could not provide that. So the chef set about finding a substitute. I do not know if I am giving out some secrets, but this is how he more or less went about it. He got some paneer, but since Indian paneer is strong as it is made from buffalo milk, he repeatedly dipped it in boiling water to reduce the strength. Then salt was aded to it and it was put in a basket to drip out the water. After seven or eight days, it had become hard and yellow in colour. He cut it into slices, and put it in oil and pepper for another week. Then it was ground into a creamy paste. I tasted it, it had a distinctly fishy taste, like sardine or anchovy oil. For the puttanesca, it is mixed with capperi (a kind of Sicilian flower, but used before it blossoms), garlic, black olives, chillis and tomatoes in olive oil. You eat it with spaghetti.
The spaghetti in puttanesca is not on the menu yet, but it should be soon. Giovanni told me: "Si, I will put in the menu, because it's coming very well. But afterwards put in menu, not immediate, my menu now is very vast."
It is, both vast and authentic, and Bombay has come to know about it. From the Italian consul general onwards, it is making its way to Juhu. People who have eaten Italian food in Italy and America, the Italian community in Bombay, everybody. Little Italy is known to the Italian legation, and more than one among them have told him that it is a good thing the place is in the suburbs. It it was nearer the city, they would be eating there every day and becoming fat. And even the Italians have been fooled, they cannot believe that Giovanni's bucatini does not have pork in it.
Bucatini a la Amatriciana requires pork and the meat is normally from the jowls of the pig. The chef has got over this difficulty with smoked cheese and soya, along with Parmesan and basil, and, of course, the ubiquitous tomato sauce. I think without tomatoes, the Italians would starve to death, especially the sun dried tomatoes. There is something special about the Italian tomatoes, I have tried to dry our own in our excellent sun and failed. Coming back to the bucatini, I do not know how to describe, it is cheesy, no doubt, but then most Italian dishes are, but it also has a body. A dish costs Rs.140 and two may eat it comfortably.
I am more familiar with the lasagne (Rs.150), which is also the most popular dish in the restaurant. Here, it is a little more dry than normal, tight would be the correct description. You don't need a spoon to eat it, you can use a fork. This is the proof of its authenticity, Indian lasagnes are floating in butter and cream and require a spoon. Giovanni uses much less cream than Indian cooks, he does not put too much bechamel in his lasagne. I suggest you try it and enjoy the difference. The fork sinking into layers of pasta soaked in cheese. Also try the risotto, there are three types, the brown rice accompanied with Italian mushrooms (Rs.190), or the rice flavoured with saffron and accompanied with mushroom, cream and cheese (Rs.170), or accompanied with four different types of melted cheese (Rs.155).
But let us go about the meal systematically. We shall begin with the antipasti, the starters, and the bread. The restaurant bakes its own bread, bruschetta. It is the authentic farmer's bread, large and heavy, may be safely preserved and eaten for a fortnight. They make it with maida and atta, with two spoons of oil, a glass of milk, water and salt. It is cut into thin slices and eaten, grilled or otherwise, topped with olive oil and garlic. The fresh bread crust (it is baked daily, just before the meals) and the combination of olive and garlic, make it an item in itself. But don't fill yourself, flavour your mouth with it. The crostini napoli is also baked here and served with fresh tomato cubes, olive oil and oregano. Portions of both these are available for Rs.90. There are other breads, but not made at the restaurant. They are served with mayonaise, artichokes and olives; with tomato sauce and melted cheese, and, of course, the garlic bread (garlic and butter). Giovanni does not much care for the garlic bread, "No. 1 cholestrol, lots of butter, but Indians go crazy over it, I don't like." The garlic bread, in case you are interested, is Rs.110.
Yes, the bruschetta is made for the restaurant only, it is not sold in loaves to be taken home. "I cannot make too much, I have only two ovens, and they are needed for pizzas. But if guests ask, make me one, I will pick it up when I come for dinner tonight, okay, I prepare one more."
There is not much out of the way about the zuppe, the minestrone (Rs.70) is standard Italian, so also the crema di funghi (Mushrooms), and the tomato, but the onion soup is made with spring onions, including the green stock. Just onions and oil, nothing else, the water generates from the green stock, so it is essential to cover the tureen when steaming.
The pizzas are both juicy and crumbly, 25 pizzas with 25 dressings. From the favourite Marinara (tomato sauce, olive oil, garlic, oregano) to Goa (tomato sauce, mozerella capsicum), Zen, Rustic (with baby corn), and Calzonie, which is a pizza roll, stuffed with mushrooms, sliced olives, mozazrella and artichokes, plus a touch of oregano, tomato sauce. Pizza prices range from Rs.100 to 175. And they are fresh pizzas, the dough never more than two hours old.
Yes, the spaghetti. Remember this simple key: tagliatelle is flat, spaghetti is spaghetti, penne is shaped like the nib of a pen, and fusilli has spirals. They have pummarola with tomato sauce, for maggi with four types of melted cheese, burro e salvia (butter and sage) and even a bolognese (soya meat).Keep space for the tirami-su, the homemade pudding in cake, with coffee-rum flavour. I repeat, it's the best tirami-su in the country.
And a word more about Giovanni Frederico Autummo. He comes from a long line of cooks, an uncle was the cook of General Armando Diaz during the First World War. Giovanni had a popular restaurant in Milan and he worked most of his life in it, from getting the bazar in the morning to cooking the food. In Italy, there is not much manpower and restaurant business is hard work for the owner. He had 00 places and six waiters. Then as the family grew up, the son became an architect, the daughter a concert pianist, he one day closed shop, sold the place, counted his money, figured out which place he could live on it in comfort and arrived in India. For ten years, he has been living at Breach Candy, swimming in the morning, painting and doing ceramics in the afternoon, playing the guitar in the night. It was an idle life, but you can take only so much of it, when Little Italy came along, he accepted the challenge.
"I am very, very proud of what we have done in three months," he told me. "So far, only three people have not liked the food here, and they are the kind who, even if God makes the food, would not like it. I make Italian food, and I refuse to make it to suit Indian tastes. What I cook, you eat. I don't go to an Indian restaurant and tell them to cook food Italian way."
Everybody has gained, including the boys in the kitchen. "Mohan, Dinesh, Manu, Shiva, Moonabhai, Sumer, they all want to learn." So happy is he with their cooking that he now wants to teach them ceramics.