When Chef Dharamvir of Taj Palace went to Istanbul on a study course, the last thing he expected to find there were pizzas. Yet, scarcely any street corner was free of a pizza joint. Called lahmacun locally, totally unlike the Italian version, Turkish pizzas are much thicker and the fillings were much more India-friendly. The vegetarian version contained feta cheese and was seasoned with onions, parsley and red peppers, while the non-vegetarian version was not round at all, but oval, and was packed with ground lamb and seasonings.
After he returned to Kafe Fontana at the Taj Palace, the chef lost no time in replicating these two pizzas, which have, many years later, remained the hottest selling pizzas on the menu. Only New Zealand lamb can be used – Indian lamb isn’t nearly as suitable. He is constantly surprised that no other restaurant features Turkish pizzas on their menus, because of the affinity they have with local tastebuds.
Ritu Dalmia of Diva is convinced that the pizza came to Naples, Italy, via the Arabs. “There’s a striking similarity between pizzas and pita bread.” According to her, the first pizzeria in Naples opened its doors in 1832. Dalmia sells pizzas in Diva only because she has to. “My customers threatened me with dire consequences when I tried to take them off the menu a couple of years ago,” she laughs. She refers to the fact that pizza is an Italian snack. And Diva is a fine dining restaurant. And, in Italy at least, ne’er the twain do meet. It’s not the same in Delhi: when San Gimignano at The Imperial, first opened its doors, it didn’t serve pizzas. The Italian chef at that time tried his best to educate guests on dining at a high-end restaurant. Several years later, however, market forces have prevailed and the restaurant has acquired a Beech pizza oven.
Beech is an Australian brand name, an irony, considering that the home of the pizza is Naples. Beech does build its ovens on Neapolitan principles – a dome shaped roof, a base made of heat-conducting material, place for wood, as well as a gas flame, to help ignition along. It’s what every chef sets his heart on: from Soumya Goswami of Gurgaon’s Trident to Bakshish Dean of The Park, and Yogen Datta of The Oberoi to Ravi Saxena of San Gimignano. The smokiness of burning wood is what imparts flavour to the pizza base, and make no mistake, a pizza is more about the base than the topping.
Says Chef Paolo Petrus of The Imperial, currently acting Executive Chef of the hotel, “When I went to a place in Italy to have a pizza, I saw with a sinking heart, that the pizziaola had put my pizza onto a wooden board before placing it in the oven. I wanted to walk out then and there.” Nothing, apparently, should come between your pizza and the floor of the oven. It’s what will impart it a smoky base.
There are pizza bases and pizza bases. Pizza Hut, Domino’s and the other chains follow the American norm and use thick crusts. Says Dalmia between clenched teeth, “It’s a different dish altogether. And it doesn’t have anything to do with Italy.” Be that as it may, few offices around the city have never called in for a Domino’s pizza, so it’s clear that the eating public – the final arbiter on culinary matters – is varied in their choice of pizza: Italian or American.
Chef Soumya Goswami, Executive Chef of The Trident, Gurgaon, and the creator of what is generally acknowledged to be the finest pizza in the National Capital Region, says that oven temperatures, type of flour used, amount of yeast and other little details are vital. “You can’t work with an oven unless it is 400 degrees Centigrade. Your pizza has to come out in two minutes. You need strong flour, but if it is too strong, you won’t get the desired result.” Quiz him more closely and he’ll look at his watch in alarm, and hurry into his kitchen for the rest of the afternoon, so here’s one source from whom we won’t be getting too much information!
The pizzas at Cilantro, at The Trident, have been appreciated by everyone from the Bachchans and Karan Johar to Italian visitors. The bottom micron is a crisp layer, brown in parts from its contact with the floor of the oven. Above that, the base is chewy, and at some point, fuses into the topping. It’s the mark of a successful pizza that you can’t tell the point at which the two meet. Chef Soumya’s pizza toppings don’t veer from the classics: Margharita with tomato concasse, mozzarella and basil leaves – the white, red and green of the Italian flag; Quattro formaggi or four cheeses and Italian pepperoni that is sliced thinly and used sparingly unlike its country cousin in the U S of A where chunks dot the pizza.
Azzuro in Saket, also widely acclaimed as having praiseworthy pizzas, uses an Italian oven. The pizzas here have the trademark air bubbles in the crust – the interplay of strong flour with a hot oven. “Italian flour has far higher gluten content than Indian flour, and because gluten is what gives flour its strength, I use a combination of flours and a bit of gluten to help things along,” is Chef Shrivant Rajgarhia’s secret. Azzuro’s two best pizzas are the pizza secco, with no topping whatsoever on it, save for a drizzle of cold pressed olive oil and peperoncino, and a superb Genovese pizza, with char-grilled aubergine and zucchini with pesto.
Chef Bakshish Dean at The Park does an extra thin crust pizza. This ensures that the pizza base is always crisp, no matter what the topping. Most pizzas are topped with a concasse of tomato – the exact recipe being a closely guarded secret. The only exceptions are pizza bianco – ‘white’ pizzas with only cheese, no tomato. A true blue Italian would expect to see every element of his pizza before him: the colour of the base, the tomato and the cheese. So, by definition, the toppings are not poured on by the barrelful the way they are across the Atlantic. The other thing that every pizzeria in Naples has is an open kitchen, where the deft movement of the pizzaolo can be seen by diners.
“When I catered to the Italian Ambassador’s daughter’s wedding recently,” recounts Ritu Dalmia, “the roomali roti makers started flipping the rotis into the air and all the Italian guests thought that they were going to be served pizzas. So similar are the two processes.”
From the classic pizzas of Naples turned out by Neapolitan Chef Vito Froio of Brix, The Grand New Delhi to Debonair Pizzas, a South African chain in MGF Mall, Gurgaon, from Gabriele, a Manali-based pizza oven fabricator currently in town to execute a few orders to Beech, an Australian firm that has beaten the Italians to it, and from Nirula’s who started it all to Cilantro who perfected it, the pizza scene in the city has started getting hot. About 400 degrees Centigrade.
Simply Delhi’s list on a few places to get pizza
Azzuro, 3 Community Centre, Saket. Ph: 51664274
Brix, The Grand. Ph: 26771234
Cilantro, The Trident Hilton, Gurgaon. Ph: 95124-2450505
Debonairs Pizza, G 42-43, MGF Mall, Gurgaon, Ph: 95124-5044444
Diva: M 8A M Block Market, Greater Kailash I, Ph:29215673
Domino’s, Ph 1600 111 123
Ego, 4, Community Centre, New Friends Colony, Ph: 26319107
Flavors, 52 C, Flyover Complex, Defence Colony, Ph: 24645644
Italianni’s, Hotel Radisson, Ph: 26779191
Italic, C 25, C Block Market, Vasant Vihar, Ph: 51663055
Kafe Fontana, Taj Palace Hotel, Ph: 26110202
La Piazza, Hyatt Regency Delhi, Ph: 26791234
Mist, The Park, Ph: 23743000
Pizza Corner, Ph: 26011111
Pizza Express, Ansal Plaza, Ph: 26254891
Pizza Hut, Ph: 9628111222
San Gimignano, The Imperial, Ph: 23341234
Spago, Kasbah, N 2 Greater Kailash I, Ph: 51635000
threesixty° The Oberoi. Ph: 24363030
Tonino, 10, MG Road, Ph: 26801588
Gabriele, pizza oven fabricator and mozzarella maker, (Manali) 09816137100