EXCLUSIVE: There's more to Italian cuisine beyond the pizza-pasta stereotype, says Chef Roberto Zorzoli
Like a typical Bengali, Roberto Zorzoli loves cooking and eating risotto, the Italian word for rice. The head chef at Romano’s, a signature Italian diner at JW Marriott Mumbai Sahar, 37-year-old Zorzoli, who hails from Milan, has arrived in Kolkata to enchant the epicureans with Italian cuisine in a week-long food fiesta at The Westin Kolkata Rajarhat.
Indulge stole the endearing chef away from the food counter for a chat on how Italian food is not all about pizzas, pastas and gelatos.
Was becoming a chef a natural career choice for you?
You may say it was organic. Since both my parents used to work, I stayed with my grandma most of the time. She used to run a small osteria (inexpensive Italian restaurant) from home, serving wine and simple home cooked food for people. Both my brother and I used to help granny by peeling the potatoes and garlic, plucking the tomatoes and preparing the salads. Since then I developed a knack for cooking and joined a two-year course in hotel management after completing middle school.
How easy was it to become an Italian chef of repute?
Not easy at all. The initial years were always full of struggle. I worked in a couple of restaurants in Italy and Belgium before getting an opportunity to head Adidomos, an Italian fine dining restaurant at Shanghai in China. After that I joined Hyatt Regency in Chennai, where I worked for two years before joining Romano’s, where I will be completing three years in October.
How varied is Italian cuisine?
There are as many Italian cuisines that are typical to the different regions of the country. Each region has its distinct palate, taste and flavour. For example, risotto and polenta are extremely popular in Milan and north of Italy, where the food is heavy with liberal use of butter, cream and cheese. The region Emilia-Romagna and its capital Bologna, famous for Parma ham and Parmesan cheese and cold cuts, are known for the pastas and rich food.
When it comes to pizzas, it’s hard to beat or emulate the soft and thick Napoli pizzas, while Rome is popular for the thin-crust versions, which are easier to make. Liguria is known for its harvest of basils and pesto sauce. If you talk about gelatos, Florence is the city to head for. Italy has a rich harvest of fruits such as apples, cherries, apricots, peaches and strawberries that add to the richness and unique taste of gelatos.
If you go further south, the cuisine and palate change completely and is more similar to the food habits of people in Morocco and the Mediterranean region. Even the vegetation is different there with abundance of olives and citrus fruits such as melons, oranges and lemons. There are many dishes, which are very popular in Italy but non-Italians find it hard to believe.
Which are those foods?
If I say couscous is very much a part of Italian cuisine, many still raise their eyebrows. But that’s a fact, couscous is an integral part of food culture and extremely popular in Sicily, which is close to Morocco. Then there are certain dishes, which many people will not even try.
Give us an example.
Coda alla Vaccinara, an ox tail stew, considered a delicacy in modern, Roman cuisine. It is made with meat from the tail part of an ox or cow, slow cooked with carrots, tomatoes and other vegetables.
What are the special dishes from Italy that you are offering in this fiesta?
We are rustling up the delicate and tasty gnocchi and risotto cooked with Portobello mushrooms apart from a platter of fish, squid and prawn fritters served with marinara sauce, besides Parma ham wrapped melons. There will also be lamb dishes and a range of Italian sweet dishes including Tiramisu.
What’s your favourite dish and what do you love to cook?
I love risotto and love cooking it, too, with mushrooms or any other thing.
Have you tried any fusion dish combining Italian and Indian ingredients?
Well, personally I keep on doing crazy experiments. But, I have used mustard oil while making fruit compote and the result was satisfactory and I guess mustard oil goes very well with cheese, too.