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Portrait of a diva

Ritu Dalmia’s restaurant and her cookbook are just like her. Unpretentious and approachable, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jul 21, 2008 12:21 IST
Vir Sanghvi

I have been eating Ritu Dalmia’s food for far longer than I have known her. Years ago, when it was almost impossible to get good Italian food at reasonable prices in Delhi, I began to frequent MezzaLuna in the Hauz Khas Village.

I had no idea who owned it but liked the food and was intrigued by the long personal descriptions that accompanied each dish on the menu. I’ve forgotten them now but they were things like “I love this sauce which I first tried when I went to the town of Palermo…” or “My friend Elena taught me how to cook this pasta which reminds me of the sight of angels kissing each other…” All right, I exaggerate! It probably wasn’t so purple but it had a curiously unselfconscious quality to it.

Then MezzaLuna closed down and I forgot all about its good food, its remarkable menu and the woman who thought it wasn’t enough to serve us food; she had to tell us how she learnt each dish.

A few years later, I began hearing about a new Italian restaurant in Greater Kailash called Diva. I went once. The food was so-so. I wasn’t very impressed and would probably never have gone back. Then, the Princess and one or two other friends told me that they loved the pasta. The chef-owner, they said, was a fat Marwari girl who loved Italian food.
Now, I’m as much against community caricatures as the next person. But when you hear “fat Marwari”, “owner” and “Dalmia” in the same sentence, you are subliminally conditioned to expect some rich lady who dabbles in Italian food because she has too much of her husband’s money to spend.

So I was not looking forward to meeting this Mrs Dalmia who, I was told, was the owner of the latest Greater Kailash pasta joint.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I finally met Ritu on my second visit to the restaurant. (I went with the Princess, so naturally Ritu was in attendance.) For a start, she was not married. It was not her husband’s money she was blowing up as a pastime.

Secondly, she was young, much younger than I could have dreamed – she must have been in her late twenties when we met. Thirdly, she wasn’t even terribly rich – her family was well-off but the Princess’s people could have bought them out (along with me and everybody else in the restaurant) before breakfast. Fourthly, she was less an owner (though she did have shares in the restaurant along with her partner Gita Bhalla) than a working chef. And finally, she was the same woman whose purple menu prose I had so enjoyed at MezzaLuna.

As I got to know her a little, her life story tumbled out. She was born to a family of marble merchants in Calcutta, had been expected to join the family business but had earned her father’s ire by walking out to become a chef. Even so, she had no catering college background and was largely self-taught.

Her skills emerged out of her passion for food. After MezzaLuna had flopped – Delhi wasn’t ready for good Italian yet – she went off to London where she ran Vama, one of the new breed of modern Indian restaurants. When Vama took off, she sold her share to Andy Verma, her partner, and came back to India. Some of the profits from the sale went into Diva, a brave attempt at running an authentic Italian restaurant in the heart of Punjabi Delhi. This time around, India was ready for the real thing and Diva soon became a commercial success.

I liked much of the food and wrote about the restaurant. HT City picked it as the city’s best Italian. And I was filled with admiration for Ritu’s devotion to wine. Five star hotels can import nearly all of their wine free of any duty (thanks to good judgment exercised by Arun Jaitley, unwitting, non-drinking patron saint of Barolo, when he was Commerce Minister) and so should be able to sell it cheap. (Outside of Bombay where there is what is known as the Sharad Pawar tax on any wine not bottled in Maharashtra – a rather shameful attempt to promote the interests of Baramati grape-growers.)

But few hotels pass on duty-savings. Stand-alone restaurants like Diva get fewer duty concessions and so, pay more for wine. Despite that, Ritu sells fine wines at prices that are much lower than hotel rates. What’s more, she knows her wine. Her list is a marvel of precision and judgment.

Ritu’s greatest achievement however is that she has created one of Delhi’s few neighbourhood restaurants. Most of the guests are regulars who come again and again. She knows many by name and when she is in town, she frequently emerges from the kitchen to go from table to table greeting guests by name.

Her guests keep coming because the food can be very good. There are duff nights of course – such as the first night I went – and only recently has the calibre of the meat and fish cooking reached the levels of the pasta. But generally, standards are fairly high and unless you order badly, it is not very difficult to eat well. The service, effortlessly run by Niju Verghese, her long-standing manager, is cheerful, friendly and warm. And occasionally, she will embark on acts of commercial foolhardiness – selling truffles at cost for instance – only because of her passion for the food.

The single best endorsement of the authenticity of her cuisine comes from Delhi’s Italian community, which swears by Diva. The Italian embassy has even asked her to run the café at the Italian Cultural Centre and whenever you ask an Italian diplomat to recommend a good Italian restaurant in Delhi, Diva is the preferred choice.

Ritu has expanded beyond Diva. There was an ill-fated attempt to sell kathi rolls and wraps at a shopping mall; there’s a good café on top of the Ravi Bajaj shop in Greater Kailash’s N Block Market and she now does the food at Alliance Francaise as well.

Over the last year, she’s gone beyond restaurants. I only saw the first episode of her first series on NDTV Good Times and while that seemed a little static, I’m told that the quality improved with later episodes. I’ve also heard great things about her new show (also on Good Times). Basically, she and her producer Monica Narula (my former producer, too) travelled through Italy for three weeks to shoot five episodes about real Italian food.

To tie in with the TV series there is also a cookbook called Italian Khana. My guess is that the book, a shameless rip-off of the Nigella Lawson-style of cookbook, will be a huge success. I have a problem with the patronising title – Italian Khana suggests fusion: some blend of Indian and Italian. In fact, it is a straightforward Italian recipe book.

The Hindi word in the title is meant to tell us that an Indian has written the book for us poor Indians who are, otherwise, so intimidated by Italian food that we would never dare buy one of the hundreds of Italian cookbooks on sale all over India.

I have a problem too with the nudge-nudge wink-wink style of sexual innuendo that is gratuitously forced on the recipes. A chapter on chillies is called Carnal Chillies though there’s nothing about carnality in the intro or the recipes themselves. The one on eggplant is called The Voluptuous Eggplant. And so on. I have no problem with the marriage of sex and food. I just wish it was not done in a tacky, schoolgirl sort of way.

That said, there’s much to commend in the book. It is easy to read and well-produced. The recipes are simple to follow and when they vary from the authentic versions, Ritu gives the original recipes as well. If you are interested in cooking Italian and know nothing about it, then this is a good beginner’s introduction to the subject.

Even if you don’t cook and find yourself in Delhi, I reckon that you should try Diva. Ritu has become a friend and they all know me at the restaurant so I am not sure how much my experience parallels the ordinary punter’s. But I was there last weekend and the food was terrific.

If you do go to Diva, look out for Ritu. She’s no longer in her twenties and she’s not fat either these days (too many hours at the gym). But she’s a fun chef – unpretentious, approachable and proud of what she does without taking it too seriously.

If you wonder what to say to her, point to a dish on the menu and ask innocently how she learnt the dish. That should keep her going for the next twenty minutes.