Words by Claudia van den Berg Morelli
Photos in India by Azra Sadr
Photos in Italy by Gloria Soverini
My name is Ritu. Like Rita, but with a U. That’s how she introduced herself when I met her last October at the Parabere Forum in Mallorca. Since then, I shadowed her around restaurants and local markets in the chaos of New Delhi, followed her to Chennai for less than 24h, and met her again in Milan. She has Italian restaurants in India, and an Indian restaurant in Italy, making her a true and authentic bridge between these two cultures.
It’s not a far-fetched bridge: both peoples are both proud of their rich heritage rooted in ancient cultures, they are family oriented, they tend to be loud, but cheerfully so, but most importantly, they love food. In fact, eating together is a fundamental aspect of daily life for both. Meals are often elaborate and composed of many courses and they both have a huge variety of regional cuisines. For example, Northern Indian cuisine – the most typical type found outside of India – is characterized by creamy curries, samosas, and bread cooked in clay ovens called tandoors. Whereas in South India, cooking is based around rice, lentils and stews, and a typical lunch will be dosas (paper-thin rice crepes), utthapams (thicker than dosas, with toppings, like a ‘pizza’), or idli (steamed lentil rice cakes). Just like in Italy, where we range from Genovese pesto to Neapolitan pizza, from Sicilian arancini to canederli in Trento.
For Ritu Dalmia, the link with Italy was meant to be. She’s a great believer in destiny – which I perceived more as a beautiful, internalized spirituality rather than the Christian divine providence – and from the very start, Ritu felt a deep connection with the country. It was never forced, it was never planned, it just happened by following her heart – which is how she makes all her decisions.
Calcutta-born, Delhi-bred, at the age of 16 her father sent her to Italy to learn about the marble trade. Little did he know he was accidentally sponsoring a life-long love affair with food and leading her to make a radical change in her life a few years later. It was during this trip to Forte dei Marmi that Ritu met Serra, a beautiful Italian-Turkish woman in her early 30s, who was a supplier of Ritu’s father. Serra loved to cook, and she was the first person to introduce Italian ingredients and cuisine to Ritu. The pair would spend hours in the kitchen together, and Serra became like a teacher. One day Ritu had a row with her father, an ugly one, which left her disappointed and frustrated. She called her friend in angst asking for advice, and Serra suggested lightheartedly that she open an Italian restaurant in Delhi. “I was in complete awe of her. In hindsight, I probably had a huge crush on her. I actually think I decided to do it just to please her without knowing what the hell I was getting into” explains Ritu with a shine in her eyes, remembering that young infatuation. She decided to sign up to the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school in Sicily where she met Faith Willinger, an American journalist living in Florence. These two powerful women, both “complete forces of nature”, determined her decision: cooking Italian food was her destiny.
And so it went.
Back in Delhi, at just 21 years old, Ritu Dalmia opened her first Italian restaurant. She called it Mezzaluna. It was a bold and brave move. It was 1993 and India was far from what it is today. The 1990’s were a period of systemic reform and consolidation of economic liberalization policies that laid the foundations of the huge economic growth that followed. However, urbanization was very slow compared to that of China, and Delhi was far from the buzzing cosmopolitan city it is today. Success was far from a certainty. Shortly after opening, her mentor Serra came to visit, and Ritu cooked her a dish of ravioli filled with ricotta and spinach with tomato sauce. Serra took one bite and said, “This tastes like it has come out of a Campbell soup can”. She cancelled her flight and stayed an extra week in the kitchen with Ritu to improve her nuances. Lifesave! From that moment on, Ritu never stopped learning and improving her cooking skills, traveling around the World and Italy specifically, connecting, exchanging, and tasting curiously, because “that’s the only way”.
Flash forward to today: 30 years since the first adventure of Mezzaluna, with the ups and downs that come with any entrepreneurial activity, she is an unquestioned reference point of Italian cuisine in India, and a national celebrity, in part due to her TV shows, which are watched by over 11 million people. In fact, during my time in Delhi, it was not uncommon to be stopped by people asking for a picture with our celebrity chef. She owns and operates six restaurants in café and fine-dining formats in Delhi and Mumbai, and in 2017, following a strategic investment, she opened Cittamani, an Indian restaurant in Milan, followed by Spica in 2019 (also in Milan), international cuisine restarurant. And that’s not all. Back in 2007, Ritu started a catering business – one of the most successful parts of the business – in which she organizes high profile top-notch out-of-this-world events which pre-covid catered up to 3000 people (and post-covid to a “mere” 1500), where she invites fellow chefs to cook from all over the World, such as Mauro Colagreco or Massimiliano Alajmo.
ITALIAN CUISINE IN INDIA
I arrived at Ritu’s house in Delhi in early December, after a 28-hour trip, with a flight rerouting via Almaty, Kazakhstan, luggage-less and sleep-less. Nothing compared to Petrini’s supposedly never-ending trips to La Pinte des Mossettes (Cook_inc. 30) or Yni-Shire (Cook_inc. 33). Ritu welcomed me with open arms and, first things first, fed me. Very quickly I came to realise that this is a gentle habit of hers and I made a note to myself to never have breakfast before meeting her. The table filled with a banquet of homemade food: a fresh and light mustard yogurt curry, pappadams, rotis, chutneys, and crispy eggplants, all to be eaten with my hands as is customary. Cristina Bowerman, Michelin-star Chef of Glass Hosteria in Rome and equally badass as Ritu, was also there to cook at an event that evening at the Italian Cultural Centre at the Embassy of Italy in Delhi, where one of the restaurants is housed. Before I realized, Ritu had handed me a bag of her clothes to bridge the days until my luggage was retrieved (spoiler: it arrived on my last day), and we were zigzagging through the Delhi traffic.
Ritu is a colourful human, both in spirit and in fashion taste, because “everyone needs a bit of colour in their life”. She’s joyful, energetic, and has a deep and contagious laugh. She finds it hard to sit still for too long, and is constantly in and out of places, meeting people and running to catch her next flight. She lives between Delhi and Goa, but last year accidentally spent more time traveling out of the country than at home. And despite the amount of work, which would be exhausting to anyone half her age, her genuine smile never leaves her face.
DIVA – the Italian Restaurant is her flagship outlet in the M Block market of GK-2 in South Delhi. It opened its doors in 2000 and still today has some regular customers who have been coming for over two decades. Ritu has no ambition to gain stars nor climb any ranking; she cooks “homey” and unpretentious food, with quality products, many of them imported directly from Italy. “Lots of chefs and restaurants – she explains – try to please the local palate and change traditional dishes to fit the culture. I don’t. I have always been a stickler for authenticity: I believe that one has to be creative, but one can never bastardize the cuisine, not the Italian in India or Indian in Italy”. That’s why in her restaurants she mixes plates that she loves from different regions: it’s about choosing the dishes from the entire repertoire that will go with the Indian palate, or the Italian one,` without changing the flavours.
DIVA’s menu is extensive. A wide range of appetizers include a colourful burrata dish, homemade arancini, or polpette di pollo which are perfectly tender, just like my nonna’s. All pasta is strictly homemade and cooked al dente, and the choice varies from tagliolini with the classic tomato sauce – in this case made with roasted calendula and slow-cooked cherry tomatoes – to Sardinian Fregola with sausage and mushrooms. Meaty seconds include gorgeous pink lamb chops, or grilled prawns from the Indian coastline. Most ingredients, when not imported directly from Italy, come from the INA Market, a local Delhi market which feels like a maze with its thin alleys and stalls bulging with products, and where you can find anything from socks to live chicken.
On the ground floor of DIVA is another special treat: PDA, a cosy and recently renovated funky aperitivo and cocktail bar, where your carefully crafted signature Italian drink is accompanied by (among other things) a beautiful fluffy focaccia and homemade crisps. Apparently, chef Ritu did not leave the side of her kitchen staff until they learned how to get the perfect crisp: light and crunchy. This ultimate primacy of quality in every detail is what makes the real difference, and it’s no exaggeration to say that PDA raises the bar of the average cocktail bar.
When Ritu is not teaching cooks how to make the perfect crisp or creating a new menu for one of her restaurants, she’s likely traveling around the world, organising catering events.
The first events were a complete disaster. Ritu had never done catering before, but she didn’t back down when asked to do it, and the slow start didn’t discourage her either. She started small, with a few people and a simple selection of food. Nowadays, they fly up to 80 staff members to another country, set up a local supply centre, and host highly specialized cooks from around the World. Because Ritu never pretends to make something she doesn’t know: for example, when asked for traditional focaccia “Recco-style” or for Kulcha (a stuffed bread cooked in the tandoor typical of the city of Amritsar), she invites trusted expert cooks to the event who make it authentically. Overall, the whole operation is a logistical nightmare; every single detail is planned to the millimetre, but Ritu and her team have mastered the skill impressively. Their clients started domestically with the crème de la crème of Indian society and have since expanded to encompass large companies – rumour has it of the likes of Google.
Catering generally has a bad reputation: buffets of pre-cooked food made for hundreds, getting cold in tin trays while people messily poke about it. But our chef protagonist has defied nature once again and has found a way to make it high quality. The pasta is cooked in batches, à-la-minute, so it doesn’t overcook, and it’s always served warm. Clay ovens, pizza ovens, and grills are set up to prepare everything on the spot. Fresh Italian ingredients are flown in, the rest is found locally by the supply chain manager who goes weeks in advance to scout the local area. The food is split into stations, each carefully curated, in a succession of colourful banquets which are a feast to the eyes (let alone the stomach) as soon as you walk in. Again, the pursuit for quality, along with her inexhaustible energy and cheerfulness, is what has made this part of the business an unexpected huge success.
With laptops on their laps in the lounge of the Taj hotel in Chennai, Ritu Dalmia and Viviana Varese (chef of Restaurant VIVA in Milan, and good friend of Ritu) laugh and tease each other, as they plan next events around the world and decide who will be cooking what with the ease of someone making a supermarket shopping list for a household of two. Viviana has been collaborating with Ritu for years now, even if the first time she was invited for a catering event it was a tragedy. “I approached the event as the starred chef – says Viviana – and planned an elaborate menu with around twenty different tastings. With 500 guests, this meant plating 10.000 individual dishes, it was complete chaos. I learned my lesson very quickly”.
INDIAN CUISINE IN ITALY
14-hour trip back to Italy, much better this second time round, and I’m in Milan. This article could not be complete without Ritu’s other half: Restaurant Cittamani. The Indian name is composed of the terms citta, meaning wisdom, and mani, meaning method; the union of the two refers to the entire spiritual path to Enlightenment. In the centre of Milan, it’s a warm and welcoming place, modern in style with a beige and brown colour palette. Ritu’s idea was to redefine Indian food abroad, and to move away from the dark and often low-quality Indian restaurant which is often the go-to. Open for lunch, aperitivo, and dinner, the place caters perfectly to the business-lunch duo, the friends catch-up, or the family meal.
The menu is varied, from your classical butter chicken to biryani or kofta, all elegantly made and plated. Lunch options include an exquisite and authentic Thali (Hindi word for ‘plate’), which is a collection of small dishes (also vegetarian) that create a full meal (from curry to chutney, including a small desert), or a fusion-style Naannini, a naan made as a wrap with your choice of filling. Cittamani certainly achieves its goal: it delightfully redefines the Indian stereotype, making it cosy and ‘hip’, while keeping the standard of quality that chef Ritu is known for and remaining authentic to the cuisine and recipes – the tandoor oven in the kitchen is proof. Top it all up with one of the cocktails created by Federica Patruno (restaurant manager and passionate mixologist), who likes to explore the huge variety of Indian spices, creating unique signature cocktails such as the Masala Chai Sour, made with a vodka infused with masala chai and spices, or the Panch Saal (made to celebrate 5 years of Cittamani), made with Talikser Skye whiskey, a homemade syrup flavoured with cinnamon, orange and cloves, chamomile liqueur, lime juice and chocolate bitters.
The team, bien-sûr, is a cultural mix in itself. The kitchen staff, previously part of the DIVA team in Delhi, are now making Indian food in Milan. And little by little more of the Italian staff is traveling to India too, as part of a cross-training programme because, at the end of the day, they are all one big team. Cittamani is yet another testimony of the beautiful bridge between Italy and India that Ritu wholeheartedly embodies.
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was introduced by the British in 1861, inspired by the 1553 Buggery Act that outlawed homosexuality in England, and stated that any form of ‘unnatural sex’ was punishable by imprisonment or death. This legacy of British rule remained long after the British left in all countries of the Commonwealth, even if the British themselves decriminalised it in their own country. I know, things just got very serious, but bear with me.
As a member with a certain status in society, Ritu was never directly affected by this law, but she knew the impact of it in smaller villages where police harassment was a regular occurrence. Despite several attempts to abolish Section 377 and different levels of the justice system, it didn’t seem to work. This didn’t sit right with Ritu, and if you’ve learned anything by now about her, you won’t be surprised to hear that she decided to do something about it.
In 2015, together with four friends, she petitioned Section 377 at the highest court level, the Supreme Court of India. It was a longshot: the only way to win was through a curative petition meaning all five supreme court judges needed to unanimously agree that a mistake was previously made and decide to change the law. It was also dangerous: by petitioning the law, they were coming out publicly and would be considered criminals. It took the team two years to make the case, and it was brought to hearing in 2017. She could barely sleep the night before the final verdict. The unexpected victory (yes, victory!) came in 2018 when Section 377 was repealed. They were blown away. And the most beautiful part, says Ritu, was that the judgment was sent to local authorities to ensure decriminalization across the country in smaller villages. Since then, other Commonwealth countries have followed suit.
Things have changed and are changing in India, in large part thanks to Ritu’s efforts, even though there is still a long way to go (same-sex marriage, for example, is still illegal). She doesn’t define herself as an activist and doesn’t want to be one, but her fight to change Section 377 has had a huge impact on millions of people in India. Now it’s time for others to continue the fight.
OPERATING LIKE A FAMILY
Ritu Dalmia is not just an inspiration to her country, her impact is also much closer to home in her day-to-day with the people she works with. She trusts her employees and gives them space to grow and learn, whether in Delhi, Mumbai or Milano. Even her investor, Sahil Vachani, thinks of her as a partner rather than a business investment. In fact, they initially met because she catered his wedding. “We were not looking to enter the food and beverage space – Sahil explains – but we were drawn to invest in her as a person, all my family loves her. It’s extremely rare to find someone who can transform a country across not one, but three vectors: in the food and beverage space with her restaurants, by shaping the national palate by introducing a different cuisine, and through her social activism which has been in many ways game changing for the country”.
Her business to date counts around 230 heads. At some point I referred to the business as a machine, for the sheer size and incredible cogs that work in perfect synchronization and efficiency. Ritu corrected me and called it a heart, which is a machine of its own, but so much more than just metal grindings. I spoke to the CEO Nakul Chandra, I spent days with Avantika Singh (marketing manager and my right hand in this trip) going around Delhi, listening and learning. I talked to managers, waiters and cooks, and every single person absolutely and endlessly admires chef Ritu and cherishes working with her. Despite the size to which it has grown, Ritu’s business still manages to operate like a family, with a lot of hard work, dedication, and passion.
It’s rare, it’s beautiful, and it’s truly unique.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR RITU
Thirty years in the making, Ritu has created a strong and resilient business. She has put together an incredible team and she’s now allowing herself to let go a little bit, and to trust of the people around her. “When you’ve been running your own business and every micro detail for so long, it’s not easy. But it’s the only way to move forward. If you want the next generation to come in, you have to let go” – she explains. But let’s be clear, she’s not ready to be redundant. Ritu is still involved in the day-to-day and continues to lead the creative part, working with the executive chefs on new menus. DIVA is her identity, it’s an extension of who she is. The day she starts treating it as just business, that will be the time to let it go. But for now, even after all this time, it’s still everything she stands for.
Ritu will never retire, she cannot. Her version of retirement is a new project in the making, a dream in the drawer. Back in Goa, where she has some land, she plans on setting up a safe space for victims of household violence. A place where women and vulnerable groups are welcomed and where they are taught a skill such as cooking, because a skillset is the way to financial independence. Some chefs at DIVA, for example, don’t know how to read or write but they have a skill, and that gives them a path to grow and to be employable. With financial independence, one can stand on his or her own two feet. Even in a form of “retirement”, Ritu will continue to be a powerful mentor figure for everyone around her.
P.S.: Just a few days before sending Cook_inc. 34 to print, we had the pleasure of attending the preview of the Indian Food Festival organized in collaboration with chef Ritu Dalmia at the St. Regis Hotel in Florence, hosted by executive chef Gentian Shehi. The halls of the Winter Garden Restaurant came alive with dancers in traditional Indian saris, a henna tattoo station and delicious signature Indian dishes by Ritu Dalmia. All accompanied by the Mumbai Mary, a bold reinterpretation in Indian spirit with coriander and cinnamon, of the classic Bloody Mary.
DIVA the Italian restaurant
M-8A, M Block Market
Greater Kailash II
Nuova Delhi, Delhi 110048 – India
Tel: +91 78279 34131
Diva at Italian Institute of Culture
50, Nyaya Marg
Nuova Delhi, Delhi 110021– India
Tel: +91 99990 26765
Piazza Carlo Mirabello, 5
20121 Milano (MI)
Tel: +39 02 3824 0935