“I’d like to see the dinner menu handed to my guests before the wine list. Going to a restaurant is primarily about eating good food, that’s what you plan when you head out. This way you pair the food with the wine, rather than the other way around. When you sell the right wine, you create an excellent experience.”
Vittorio Greco has presented the cuisine of his native southern Italy at his own seafood restaurant in Parma, followed by a series of high-end restaurants in Brisbane and Queensland, before he opened Ottimo, the fine dining Italian restaurant at the ITC Gardenia, Bengaluru. About a year-and-a-half old, Ottimo is on a roll –Vittorio has just launched a restaurant in Chennai, at the ITC Grand Chola and another opening at New Delhi’s Maurya Sheraton is in the offing. In the shortest time possible, Vittorio appears to have captured the perfect balance between tradition, innovation and the expectations of the modern Indian diner.
Ottimo is all clean lines and comfortable modern seating in vivid lime green, with the occasional touch of luxurious baroque –velvet, jewel coloured glasses and Murano chandeliers built around an open plan kitchen where you can watch Vittorio engage with his team, bringing his own light, confident interpretation to several time-tested classics. “I try to keep the ingredients as simple as possible,” he explains. The burrata is locally sourced and served with sour cherry and toasted almonds; the tomatoes and aubergine dense with flavour in the excellent Parmigiano mousse are local too. “The vegetables here may not look so good, but they taste great. I try to keep the ingredients local as much as possible.”
It sounds like simplicity itself when he explains that he likes to keep the ingredients as local as possible: “let the ingredients do the job, don’t try too much.” It requires, though, a remarkable degree of confidence to favour local produce in a young and often erratic market, over the reliability of imported produce. But Vittorio – who is a member of the worldwide Italian Chefs Association, and frequently joins in the discussions and exchanges notes with other chefs across the globe cooking in different countries –believes that they can actually draw out the best from local producers and farmers by creating a much needed demand and encouraging competition to raise the quality of raw materials.
After a year, he feels he has begun to understand tastes in food and wine in India. Menus, according to him, have become more vegetarian friendly: “Italians have a lot of vegetable dishes, we just don’t pay enough attention to them.”
His approach to wine is uncomplicated in a way that I have begun to expect after an hour in the company of this lively, humorous and creative chef –after highlighting a number of heavyweight Italian labels on the list, he states: “A wine works when you want a second glass.” Vittorio encourages the staff to gauge the wine preferences of a person, particularly a young guest, before making recommendations, something that requires careful observation and experience. He speaks with an ease that underplays his experience in two different Michelin-starred restaurants in Australia and the success of Ottimo.
ITC hotels, recognizing the growing general interest in wines and wine drinking have an active programme that prompts young staff members to train and qualify at the courses offered by WSET. In addition, the hotel’s sommeliers actively engage with guests via social media, exploring various aspects of wine drinking –a winning strategy, it appears, as the young sommelier at Ottimo announces enthusiastically that all premium wines on their list sold out over the last two months.
To accompany our tasting menu, Vittorio has selected a light, fresh Ricossa Gavi, 2014 that stays with us through the first three courses of Burrata, Parmigiano Mousse and a classic Tagliatelle in a flurry of truffles. His second choice is an elegant, medium bodied, berry-rich Brancaia Tre Rosso Toscano 2012 to accompany the risotto with duck confit (locally farmed duck here) and superb bone marrow stuffed lamb chops. No molecular gastronomy here –just tried and tested classics with small elements of surprise in the source of a flavour – sour cherries in the place of tomatoes, for instance –and textures. A dessert iofpears poached in red wine with Parmesan cannelloni is a welcome alternative to the predictability of a cheese platter, which carries the Brancaia pleasingly to the very end of the meal.
Ottimo appears to have avoided the struggles of many fine dining restaurants trying to establish themselves in India today –a rush of enthusiasm followed by a predictable decline in interest: something to do with Vittorio, a high-energy chef who engages with his guests –and team –with equal ease. He’s quite comfortable wandering into a local beer bar, travelling by auto rickshaw, and has made progress learning Kannada and Hindi. He refers to his junior Sous Chef, Sasha Maria Vania Dominique as ‘my best man’, for all the innovations she is willing to test out in the kitchen. Without moving away from his cuisine, he appears to have understood what his guests wish to eat and drink.
A Chef Abroad appeared in Sommelier India Magazine, April-May 2015
Image Credits: ITC Gardenia, Bengaluru