Chef Ritu Dalmia On Her First Restaurant In Italy: Cittamani Was My Destiny

One would assume that after seven restaurants, three books, two television shows, you’d want to put your feet up and reflect upon the glorious innings. Heck no, not if you’re Chef Ritu Dalmia. This insatiable innovator is a force to reckon with and has cracked many a firsts – acquainting the capital with authentic Italian, pioneering the way for women restaurateurs in the country, running seven successful kitchens in #OurCity, and more. As this award-winning chef continues to take forward her legacy of bringing Italy to India, Chef Dalmia is reversing the cultural exchange program with her latest outing in her soul country – Italy.

The lady with a soul-warming laugh and energy levels that would put the Energiser Bunny to shame, is currently prepping & powdering her “new baby” (as she calls her restaurants). Terming Tiramisu as “the most over-rated Italian dessert”, Chef Dalmia has been instrumental in making India understand Italian cuisine in a more nuanced fashion*. India & Italy share a host of similarities: the uncut umbilical cord with home-cooked traditional meals, great emphasis on the institution of family, and a plague of stereotypes. Nope, Italian food ain’t just about pizzas & pastas; the same way Indian food has a million more exciting offerings than butter chicken & “naan bread”. Hence, when this unassuming & affable chef told us about her mission of showcasing Indian cuisine to Italy in a mindful manner, we knew this loop is being closed with a lot of love & thought.

DSSC had the rare chance to take an exclusive sneak peek into Chef Dalmia’s first Indian restaurant before it opens doors in Milan. Book your tickets pronto, because you need to say hello to Cittamani! From a young Marwari girl moving away from the family’s granite & marble business to open her first restaurant, MezzaLunna, in 1993, the chef’s relentless passion and hard-work has been the star of innumerable supper tables. Remarkably ahead of its time, MezzaLuna shut shop in two years, giving way to setting up Vama in London and soon after Diva in Delhi. Fast forward to 2017, where she’s been knighted with the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity by the Italian government, we get chatting with Chef Ritu and present to you the Cittamani experience.

Image: Modestino Tozzi

Tell us how you named your restaurant ‘Cittamani’?

Cittamani is a Buddhist tara (star) – which has a tantric background. So, for me it was a combination of spirituality and sensuality…and is that not what food is about? I could not have chosen a more apt name (modesty has never been my strength, as you guys already know!).

You share an old bond with Italy, hence it was only a matter of time that you set up a restaurant there. How did you pick Milan as the home for Cittamani?

So, it was a given that my first venture in Europe would be Italy. Milan is the only city in Italy which is curious, open to international food, and last but not the least, rich.

What was your inspiration behind Cittamani’s menu – blending Italian with Indian?

Oh dear – the answer to this question would be a novella! The experiments started about a year ago and the foundation was that anything we did with Indian food, it had to suit the Italian palate without bastardising either of the cuisines.

The menu that was planned and the menu we finally have are quite different…what is that saying? ‘The team proposes, Ritu disposes’? (laughs).

What’s Ritu Dalmia’s process of signing off the final cut of the menu (and the spiffy dishes that’ll have us drooling all the way from India)?

The final cut was based on many mock trials at the restaurant where we asked anyone and everyone to walk in and try out the dishes. Final tweaking happened after the feedback, and the final menu came out of our little black hat.

Few of our menu highlights are Matar Poori with Burrata and Tomato Launji, Tagliolini with Kurkuri Bhindi and Amchoor, Bengali Khichdi with Stracciatella, Quinoa Pulao with Baingan Salad, Avocado Raita, Nannini (naan panini with a selection of fillings), Nolen Gud Crème Brûlée, Violet Carrot Halwa with Fior di Latte ice-cream, and Pista Chikki.

You are a strong advocate of using local & seasonal produce in your dishes. What exciting Italian ingredients are you sourcing for Cittamani’s Indian fare?

We are very excited about what we have from the Italian larder – the paneer in Milan is terrible, so we are using this amazing Italian cheese called primo sale instead. For the fruit chat we have luscious peaches and sexy tomatoes. I have a weakness for burrata and stracciatella, so you will see that being featured…and then every day we find something new to play with.

What is the one striking difference you’ve observed between the Indian and Italian F&B landscape?

What a huge difference – guests are very patient in Italy, they eat out a minimum of three to four times a week, and it is almost like they are thankful to you for feeding them.

From bringing Italian to India and now taking Indian to Italy, how has this exchange of cuisines & cultures journey been for you?

It is almost like a full circle, and to me it seems like it was my destiny.

An empire in Delhi and now establishing a new one in Milan, how will we see you divide time between the two cities?

I was already spending a lot of time in Italy earlier, with my events and other work commitments. Now, the plan is to spend one week in Milan every month, and the rest between India and various other projects.

In the Cittamani kitchen

As Chef Ritu beams at yet another spirited team she’s helped build & lead for yet another champion restaurant, we get down to booking dates for a Milanese weekend spent at Quadrilatero d’Oro and lazy brunches & late dinners at Cittamani. As we wish her all the luck for her new adventure, we do so by whipping out the signature DSSC Rapid Fire.

Your favourite dish on the Cittamani menu?

Ritu: Matar poori with burrata – at the end of the day I am a true blue Marwari!

Your go-to comfort food?

Ritu: Chawal, peeli daal with moongfali, and aloo jeera.

One up & coming chef (in India) we all need to look out for?

Ritu: Akriti Malhotra. She interned at Diva and soon will be opening her own space, she is super talented.

One dish you never tire of prepping?

Ritu: Spaghetti with bits of tomato and basil.

One kitchen faux pas in the early days of your career that makes you laugh till date?

Ritu: Cheese soufflé which was so, so wrong that it burst like a bomb when it arrived on the table (I did not have it on the menu, and did not even know how to make it. A journalist requested for it, and I said of course in a totally over confident way, ran to consult my cookbooks – and this was the brilliant result).

Gun to your head – Indian or Italian?

Ritu: Tough choice, but Indian for sure.

 

*Her preferred dessert is Torta Della Nonna (a rich, creamy custard filling topped with pine nuts and lined with a rich short pastry) or Cannoli (perfectly crisp shells filled with ricotta)

 

Featured Image Courtesy: Vishal Koul