Ever since her father emigrated from Italy to Venezuela, and later living in London, Annamaria Forgione (pictured below) had always yearned to belong to some place she could really call home. Now, at 68, the founder of Fire and Ice Pizzeria in Thamel has decided that she belongs more to Nepal than Naples.
This week, as the Nepal Investment Summit gets underway, it may be a good time to remember one of the first investors in Nepal’s hospitality sector after the Foreign Investment Act was passed in 1992. Fire and Ice will soon mark 25 years in Kathmandu, and is a model business that has stuck with Nepal through thick and thin.
“As an immigrant child, I missed the sense of home, but it gives me great happiness to know that I belong to Nepal,” says Forgione, raising her voice to be heard above the background noise of her busy Kathmandu pizzeria one recent evening.
Forgione was working at the Italian Embassy in London when she fell ill and became wheelchair-bound for more than a year. Her British husband, a teacher, started looking for a job so she could have a change of scenery to recover, and fortuitously landed a job at Lincoln School in Kathmandu.
“It was an act of god that I came to Kathmandu,” says Foregione, smiling. “Otherwise, who knows, Fire and Ice may have opened up in Ulan Bataar.”
It was her obsession with cleanliness that made Forgione plan “a clean, simple place with no pretences”, where people in Kathmandu could eat without falling sick. She even put a microscope in the kitchen to show waiters the germs lurking about if they did not wash their hands.
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The timing was perfect. The new business-friendly Foreign Investment Act made it easy to register Fire and Ice, and with the boom in trekking tourism, and growth in Kathmandu’s expat community in the mid-90s, the restaurant immediately took off as a place not just to eat, but to meet and greet.
One regular was Crown Prince Dipendra, who came for his favourite salami pizza with his friend Devyani Rana a fortnight before the massacre at the nearby royal palace in June 2001. There have been many celebrity visitors since, including Sting, Richard Gere and Bollywood stars.
Nepal has now moved on from monarchy to republic, from war to peace, and survived many political upheavals, but Fire and Ice is exactly where it was on Tridevi Marg next to the three temples dedicated to the goddesses, Dakshinkali, Manakamana and Jawalamai. Kathmandu-based expats return to Fire and Ice when they visit Nepal just to relive the time they were here.
“Some young men come and hug me and say, ‘Annamaria, remember me?’ They were children when they used to come here 20 years ago, and now they are all bearded and grown-up,” Forgione remembers. “They feel the restaurant is a link to their childhood, it is a constant. We need these anchors to give our lives continuity.”
Forgione’s main challenge in the past 25 years has been to ensure quality, so she personally supervises the kitchen, training and sourcing ingredients. The other challenges over the years have been dealing with shutdowns and extortion.
Despite conflicts, earthquakes and the Blockade, Annamaria Forgione says she has never been fed up with Nepal, and will never leave. She helps Jay Nepal Action Volunteers work with earthquake survivors, and is full of admiration of the inner strength of Nepalis.
“Nepal gives me such happiness, it has been my life,” she adds, “when I go to the Big Pizzeria in the sky, I want to look down and see that this place is still going strong.”