With a repertoire ranging from comfort food to sophisticated dishes, Italian cuisine is all about balance of flavours.
Food wars are delicious. But, unlike in India, where you will find even Punjabis and Assamese arguing with gobsmacked Bengalis and Malayalees about having a cuisine, all of Europe has essentially three cuisines of which two are perennially locked in an arm-wrestling match.
The French and Italians don’t let go of any opportunity to claim superiority over the other, while Spaniards, having run one of the first global empires in the world, mostly stay silent, smug in the knowledge that it’s their dishes which perk up many cuisines around the world, especially Europe.
So when Westin hotel in Gurgaon invited me to sample and review the summer menu at their Italian restaurant, Prego, I was looking forward to Chef Emiliano Di Stefano bitch out French food. He did not disappoint.
When I walked in, on a Sunday, just two tables were taken. But behind the counter, Emiliano was busy, cradling a large steel bowl and whisking chocolate.
He smiled and spoke of the menu he had curated for us. It began with Rucola & Mango, and Il Formaggio Con le Pere — salads meant to give us a flavour of what he calls the “true Italian concept” of eating, i.e. pears and cheese.
The salads were delicious, crunchy and bursting with flavours. Italian food, Emiliano said, is all about the balance of flavours, unlike “French food where there’s a lot of camouflage”.
“Chicken cooked in milk? My friend, with all due respect, but you cook chicken in milk, you seriously, totally change the flavour.”
In any case, he added, there’s nothing French about French food. “French food is basically a variation, a derivation of Arab and Spanish food. Creme Brulee is Crema Catalana, a Spanish desert,” he said and listed other stolen items and techniques.
He did concede two things, though. One, that the French were the first ones to document processes and techniques that existed, and two, the best bread he has ever had was in Bordeaux, France. “Very crusty outside and huge bubbles inside.”
As we are served Pizza Italiana, with parma ham, he spoke with almost palpable hostility about the chappati-style thin breads that are used for pizzas these days.
The pizza dough at his restaurant, he says, is prepared 24 hours in advance and always has holes inside, which means it’s “light as the dough cooked while it sat”.
The pizza was subtle, light, yummy. I could have had another one if we didn’t have the pasta and the main course to wade through.
Next we were served Aglio, Olio & Crostacei pasta (tiger prawns and scallops with a prawn shell sauce).
Though I love Carbonara and would love to have spaghetti with meatballs that isn’t drenched in tomato puree, mostly I’ve been disappointed by pastas at restaurants because either there’s too much of one thing, or too little of everything.
At Prego, where Emiliano says all pastas are made fresh everyday, the sauce was overwhelming.
Emiliano says that 20 years ago, when the first wave of Italian food hit India, the chefs in charge of kitchens “were not really Italian chefs.”“They created white sauce, which doesn’t exiiiist in Italy,” he adds, the pain apparent as he drags the vowel “I”.“It’s kids’ food. When a kid doesn’t eat anything, you make him a pasta with cream sauce.”
Prego’s menu, he says, is authentic Italian, though it has a chicken bias as “we are in Delhi”.
He doesn’t serve us chicken though in the main course.We get fish — Branzino al Cartoccio (sea bass), buffalo — Medaglioni di Filetto ai Funghi (tenderloin medaillons), and, brace yourself, a dish called Stinco di Agnello al Vino Rosso, Puree di Patate, Giardiniera di Verdure.
It’s named thus, I guess, out of respect for the New Zealand lamb which travelled all the way to be cooked for over 12 hours at 72 degrees in red wine.
It was tender and came off the bone quickly, but nothing in the main course stood out like the salads and the pizza did.
As a fly buzzed about our table that none of the staff noticed, I picked at the food, more interested in Emiliano’s stories.
He spoke of being trained by Italian chefs who would “make your bones, as we say. First they break you, and then they put you together.”
About kitchen accidents, anger management issues of chefs, about learning to cook risotto at what he calls the “world’s best risotto restaurant” where they grow their own rice.
Desserts, he said, are simple as a heavy, happy plate arrives. “You just follow the instructions”. Every bite of Millefoglie (crunchy puff pastry with grandmother style mustard) and Torta Caprese (a gluten-free almond-chocolate cake) was divine, dreamy.