Kathmandu's own 'Eataly'

All photos: L’ITALIANO

It may not be part of the famous artisanal food and beverage marketplace chain, but a new Jhamel restaurant comes closest to being Kathmandu's own version of Eataly.

L'Italiano opened its doors this week for Kathmanduities to indulge in Italian fine dining with authentic cuisine from Italy that ranks second only to Chinese in popularity worldwide.

One might think the Nepali palate is used to Italian food -- after all, the ease of preparing pasta dishes have meant that it has started replacing dal bhat tarkari in many households, and the pizzas are hot favourites after momos in restaurants.

Thamel’s Fire and Ice and Roadhouse pizzerias have been consistently popular for decades in Kathmandu. Establishments specialising in Italian food are aplenty, perhaps only behind Indian and Chinese restaurants. So what does one new Italian restaurant add to Kathmandu's growing food culture?

Much like momos are a variation of Tibetan dumplings, but with a wide range of types, ingredients and spices, Italian food has gone through alterations in Nepal. So much so that locally served pizza, pasta, risotto and lasagne do not taste anything like they are supposed to, says Italian chef Andrea Cannalire who was recently in town.

Cannalire is a Michelin star chef based in Ostuni in Italy, close to Francavilla Fontana where he grew up. While he was working in Phuket in Thailand last year, he found out that a restaurant in Kathmandu was looking to rebrand itself.

Through a common friend, Cannalire agreed to visit Nepal and was here for over a month training Nepali chefs before the grand opening of L’Italiano this week.

“Italian cooking that has evolved in Kathmandu has gone through some major transformation. It has reached a point where I’m having to introduce the traditional way of doing Italian cooking,” says Cannalire, who has over a decade-long experience in gourmet cooking. “Chef as well as the clientele, have to be educated on what authentic Italian is.”

During his month touring various restaurants in Kathmandu and Pokhara, Cannalire got to like the Nepali Thali and Phaparko Dhido. However, he noticed that many eateries overdo spices so that it is difficult to savour the true flavour of food, for example in preparing mutton curry. This is why he has taken special care to train Nepali chefs in L'Italiano to use spices in moderation. 

A big part of the mutated taste of Italian food in Nepal is the lack of genuine ingredients. Kathmandu markets do not have anything close to real mozzarella, and the prosciutto is not the genuine ham from Parma.

Similarly, lasagne is traditionally made with ragu that has beef mince in it, which means most restaurants would have modified it.

"Nepalis seem to love chicken topping in pizza, but you would never do that in Italy," quips Cannalire, who got interested in cooking from a young age.

“Every time I went to restaurants with my family when I was a boy, I used to wonder what went on behind the doors that lead to the kitchen,” recalls Cannalire. “This extended even to the games we played as a child, I used to be fascinated even with a play kitchen my cousin had.”

Cannalire first started working in restaurants around his hometown, but he started exploring and interning at different places, improving his cooking skills. Before long, he found his calling in gourmet cooking and returned home to southern Italy to work in a hotel restaurant nearby.

The newly launched L’Italiano is housed in the same space and is owned by some of the same people behind The Vesper House. The establishment itself has gone through several alterations in both décor and food over the years.

Vesper Café and Restaurant had carved a niche in Patan's Jhamel restaurant neighbourhood. After its quaint red mud-brick house was damaged in the 2015 earthquake, it reopened almost immediately next door to continue to cater to wine and cheese lovers.

Post-pandemic, it has reinvented itself into a fine-dining Italian restaurant with new décor, and with inputs from Cannalire, will specialise in pasta dishes, hand-cooked and in genuine Italian al dente style, so that the pasta has a little bite to it.

Ashank SJB Rana of L’Italiano realises the challenge of maintaining the high-quality set by the Italian chef, and plans to bring Cannalire back every year for refresher training for his chefs.

Read also: Exploring Nepal’s culinary diversity, Kedar Sharma and Kiran Sharma

“To have good quality food, you don’t always need to import ingredients, you should know how to play with locally sourced produce as well,” says Rana who studied wine management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “Our goal is to give our clients an authentic taste of Italy. But this does not mean it will be an uber-sophisticated space."

The Vesper House suffered much like any other establishment during the initial days of the pandemic. But as the impact of the Covid-19 declined, people started dining out, its usual expatriate clientele was largely replaced by Nepalis.

The Vesper House is one of the biggest importers of fine wine in Nepal, where Merlot and Chardonnay remains popular. Its extensive wine cellar with large collection from Australia, Spain, Germany, Italy and France will continue to be a part of the new establishment. Vesper also has its own wine label appealing to a wide variety of palates, and works with restaurants to advise them on their wine menus.

Read more: Food of the royals, Nepali Times

Sonia Awale

writer

Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.

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