As Little Italy Juhu turns 25, we figure out its secret to stay relevant
Sometime in the late 80s, a young gentleman Umesh Mehta was in Italy handling his import and export business. When hunger struck, he started looking for some vegetarian food and it took him some time before he could finally find a restaurant that had vegetarian offerings. He really liked some of the dishes there and thought of bringing those Italian delicacies that could be enjoyed without meat to his native place, Mumbai. And, thus, in 1995, he opened a fine dining restaurant named Little Italy in Juhu.
Situated near the beach, this all-vegetarian fine dining restaurant created a reputation of being a family restaurant and indulged their guests in dishes beyond Pasta and Pizza. Their Ravioli, which we have also tried and loved to the core thanks to its flavoursome tomato sauce and perfect to T ravioli filled with cottage cheese, became a signature dish and it continues to be so even today, even as the restaurant has changed its menu and ambience, and revisit the price point to cater to all age groups.
Over the years, Little Italy has expanded beyond Mumbai, with its outlets in over 20 cities and four countries. As it celebrated its 25th anniversary this month, we spoke to Umesh Mehta’s son Abhi Umesh Mehta, Managing Director of Little Italy, about its journey so far and what lies ahead for the restaurant. Excerpts:
Q: How much has Italian cuisine evolved over the last 25 years?
Italian cuisine has undergone several layers of changes over the years. At Little Italy Juhu, we keep experimenting and try out innovative dishes with new ingredients. For example, we have an Avocado pasta on our menu. Until now, no one was using avocado in pasta. We saw this as an opportunity to start something new and started making sauces from avocado and served it alongside pasta. Since everyone is shifting to a healthier version and eating right, we thought to bring in something new in the same direction.
Q: How much has your Juhu restaurant changed in its physical aspects over the years? Can you tell us how it was in the beginning and take us through the transition?
When we started the restaurant in 1995, it had a retro look but Italian with the sculptures of Rome. The interiors gave the feel of having a mini trip to Italy! When we redecorated the restaurant, we gave it a more modern and polished look but used sculptures in the form of pictures on the menu card. The hints of previous creations are what reminds our customers of history while giving them a more modern feeling.
Q: What does the customer of today want? And, what pulls them to Little Italy?
Back in the day, our primary focus used to be families since we were a fine dining restaurant and we catered to a niche audience. Over the years, things progressed and now we cater to all age groups. A lot of people say Little Italy Juhu is value for money but it is on the expensive side so we created value meals for everyone to enjoy. We also slowly leaned towards the younger generation to understand their palate and now we have dishes that suit their needs. And, today, Little Italy Juhu’s food is enjoyed across generations. We still have a 92-year-old customer who comes to the restaurant and has a particular type of pizza and tiramisu, which is his cheat meal for the entire week. He visits us every week and also gets his grandson along, who enjoys the new Lebanese and Mexican dishes that are served here. In all, it is really good to see different generations come together and share that zeal and enjoyment.
Q: What's your signature dish? What makes it so popular?
It's the Ravioli and the reason behind its popularity is that it's homemade. The flavour is so perfectly balanced that it gives a great mouthfeel as well as taste, it just blows your mind in the first bite. The absolute balance of the sauces and vegetables with the filling inside along with freshness makes it super delicious. In desserts, the chocolate bomb is one of the best dishes that we have, we roughly sell at least 200 portions of it on a regular day. Not only do the people love its taste but also the way it is presented and served.
Q: How was the lockdown for you? What are the precautionary measures that you will be taking once the dining service resumes?
The Government will be giving us certain procedures and SOPs that we have to fulfil and follow. Apart from that, we have also created single booths where there are partitions between the tables. For constant sanitization, there is a machine that sanitizes the entire place. After every dine-in, we will be sanitizing the table and chairs. Currently, with regards to the cutlery, we are planning to give options to customers of getting their own. Besides, all the cutlery is washed and kept under UV heaters to keep bacteria and viruses at bay.
Q: Tell us about your latest venture, Little Treats Patisserie.
On our 25th anniversary, we have introduced a new brand for vegetarian and vegan desserts - Little Treats Patisserie. Each item is of top-notch quality and is absolutely delicious.
Q: Lastly, what are your future plans for Little Italy?
We have chalked out an expansion plan, just been waiting for the right time to put it in action. Once things function smoothly, we are all set to pick up the pace.