Tarsillo Nataloni’s place in Delhi’s gastronomic legacy is one of pride. When he set up Flavors — the city’s first Italian restaurant — in 1996, he became perhaps the first expatriate to set up an eatery outside of a five-star hotel in the Capital. Fourteen years later, the Italy-born restaurateur did it again, this time by starting the city’s “first independent French eatery”.
Nataloni was an electronics engineer working in Lyone, France, when he thought of becoming a chef and starting a restaurant in India. “I had travelled in Southeast Asia a lot as an engineer and marketer. By 1991, I had had enough of the corporate job and wanted to do something of my own.”
His mother, Nataloni says, was fascinated by India and encouraged him to come to the country. “In 1991, I read an article in the Financial Times of London about how Manmohan Singh was liberalising the economy. I got interested and came to India to explore business opportunities. I visited various parts of the country, including South India and Mumbai. Wherever I went, I found Indians to be quite like Italians: loud, garrulous, unorganised and happy. That helped me decide on coming to the country,” he says.
He shifted his base to India in 1993 and registered his company in 1994. In 1996, he started Flavors, an ice-cream parlour whose signature offering, After8, was a hit with Delhi residents. Within the next two years, he turned the ice-cream parlour into an authentic Italian eatery, which served a whole range of pastas, pizzas and desserts. “My restaurant, Delhi’s first foreign restaurant outside of a hotel, was the favourite haunt of top bureaucrats, politicians and businessmen,” says Nataloni, with pride. He recalls that when he set up shop in the 1990s, the DDA complex near Moolchand flyover was far from the bustling market it is today. “There were a few shops there, including a tailor’s and a second-hand car dealer’s. I was often mistaken for a Russian, as people from that country were the only expatriates in the city those days,” he says.
Nataloni says that the country’s newly liberalised economy allowed him to get the requisite licences and permits without much trouble. “I did not even have to buy anyone a cup of coffee; instead, I was offered coffee and invited to dinners by various people, including officials,” he says.
“My experience shows that a nothing-works mindset doesn’t help. Most bureaucrats I met helped me find legitimate solutions to problems,” he says, adding, “Being a foreigner could’ve helped, though.”
In 2010, he set up Flavors P’tit Bar across the park from his hugely successful Flavors restaurant. As the first independent French restaurant, it quickly became the meeting point of the growing French community in Delhi. Its cheese fondue and gammon steak were hits among expatriate Frenchmen as well as others. Nataloni has recently re-launced the P’tit as Le Bistrot inside the French Cultural Centre on Aurangzeb Road. “I wanted a more prime location. Besides, the place draws a large number of Indians too,” he says, adding, “We will have a smaller menu with more specials to counter competition from around 11 other French restaurants in the city,” he says.
Nataloni, who compares Delhi with Rome and Mumbai with Milan, says the Capital has changed a lot in a few years. “Many complain about the city’s traffic and pollution, even though it is an extremely green city. I love its greenery and its varied weather. It is still affordable unlike Mumbai. Besides, the law and order is better than in neighbouring states and I don’t have to bother about my safety,” he says. “I miss a waterfront in the city, though. It’s unfortunate that the Yamuna is in such a bad shape.”
“The advantage of being a foreigner is that you see only the positives and need not worry much about the negatives,” he says when asked what he hates about the city. “I’m being a bit selfish here, though,” he chuckles.
Nataloni, who lives in Anand Lok in south Delhi with his Indian wife, a daughter and son, both born and brought up in Delhi, calls India his home. But ironically, his 86-year old-mother, who held an idealist’s view of India and encouraged him to come here, is disenchanted with the country.
“She visited me in 1998 and never returned. Nor does she wish to. She was appalled by the potholed roads and the spicy food. I often go to visit her in Italy,” he says.
Ask him about his legacy and he says, “I was the first one to give Delhi the taste of authentic Italian and French cuisine. Besides, I have trained hundreds of boys and girls from small towns in running authentic, cuisine-specific restaurants,” says Nataloni.