IN the class war that continuously ages between the Greater Kailash grand dames and the upbeat have money-will-spend Punjabi Bagh prima donnas, there is a new state-of-the-art weapon: the Italian pizza. It all began as a search for that allelusive golden fleece: a snob value to live by. Upper crust memsahibs shuddered delicately as rampaging tradesmen flashing thick gold chains .. bulging wallets stormed their lealously-guarded preserves--Bukhara, The Grill Room, Dum Pukht--stri-dently demanding sweetcorn soup, mittha kam please! The cognoscenti were in an uproar. Nothing seemed exclusive any- more. Where could self-respecting gourmand snobs be seen without being socially compromised?
Not La Rochelle: the food was bland, the names of dishes unpronounceable. Thai food was too hot, Mexican even hotter than Indian, Nouvelle cuisine was, well, too nouvelle.
Enter the pizza. And its more sophisticated cousins: lasagne, calzone, spaghetti, fettucini, et al. Here, at last, is snob value. A sure ticket to social salvation. Marwari society ladies are finally indulging their taste for red hot peppers, managing to stay rigid vegetarian and still serving "English" food at their husband's business dinners even dining out at the five star Casa Medicis and La Piazzas is not embarrassing. And the names of dishes are eminently pronounceable-fettucini rhymes with dalchini, pasta with bhatta. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs have been quick to sh in on the Italian Goldush. Casa Medici at the Taj and La Piazza at the Hyatt offer a la carte meals at prices ranging from Rs 4,000 to Rs 6,000 for two depending on how much wine you drink to wash down your pasta. Even without the wine, the meal doesn't come cheap. The main course costs about Rs 350 before tax. And the price for gelati--ice-cream to the uninitiated--is Rs 180.
BUT then price is the last consideration when you go to La Piazza. The Society Style Guide Manual says categorically: Go There. Because Sonia (pronounced Saunya) Gandhi goes too. Besides Amitabh Bachchan rind Madhavrao Scindia, not to mention the Italian ambassador. No Michelin recommendation this but chi chi enough coming as it does from the suave Fabrizio Pattri, the Italian cultural attache: "We...eelll eet ees, shall we say, the closest theeng to the oreeginaal you can find in thees country.
Ambience and service are the hallmark of mid-level restaurants like Basil and Thyme, run by Sunil Chandra, and Mezza Luna, managed by personable Italian-speaking Marwari ingenue Ritu Dalmia. A meal for two costs over Rs 950 here. Gnocchi di Patate Guxxi, potato dumplings in a rich gorgonzola cream sauce, costs Rs 120. Minus tax, of course. Duke's Place at Hauz Khas village and Gourmet Gallery at South Extension are only a little cheaper. A meal for two could cost anywhere between Rs 400 and Rs 500, excluding beverages. Fashion victims, style wannabes and the must-be-seen-there could visit Ego, the pub and Italian food eatery run by peroxide blonde Bina Modi. The price you pay for a drink and a meal is about Rs 700.
If the aristocracy have a fad, can the middle classes be far behind? That is the market Rajive Makhani astutely caters to from his Slice of Italy takeaway at IIT Gate. A dozen varieties of freshly-baked pizzas, oven-fresh lasagne and calzone delivered at your south Delhi doorstep. A meal for two is value for money at Rs 150 only, with Indian-made mozerella cheese to boot. Business transacted: Rs 5,000 a day in the first month. Just like Rati Gadhok and Neeti Sarin's business at Goodies Galore at Vasant Kunj. Head office: Rati's kitchen. Turnover: Rs 30,000 a month. At the Village Shop Italian eatery on the Delhi-Gurgaon highway, the cash register rings through the week. Only four tables, but a house full of happy customers. Three other Italian eateries on the same road are doing brisk business too.
Snobbery apart, what accounts for the Italian fever raging among Delhi gourmets? Says foodie Jawahar Ezekiel: "It's filling. Indians like that. Feel they are getting value for money." Dalmia believes Indian palates are getting refined. "People are travelling abroad more. Food preferences are changing."
Makhani offers an interesting insight. "The cuisine is akin to Indian food minus the oil and spices. Risotto is like pulao. And what is a pizza but a parantha with the stuffing on top?"
Executives from Sbarro, the Italian food chain, discovered through a survey that Delhi women would like more Italian restaurants so they could meet "handsome Italian men". The feeling's mutual. Tarsillo Nataloni, an expatriate Italian, plans to open an Italian restaurant in Delhi next month so he can meet more "beautiful Indian women". The Risotto Roadroller seems all set to roll on.