It is always the small nondescript eateries that steal the show with their authentic delectable offerings be it kebabs on a tiny hand cart in by lanes of Lucknow or a tucked away corner selling sweetened thick buttermilk in Jodhpur or the many small makeshift stalls with their spicy ‘pani puri’ or ‘dahi-bhalla’ in the heart of New Delhi.
The food at these often leaves you wanting for more. And it is at such undistinguished pizzerias that I really fell in love with the more authentic wood-fired version of the Italian flatbread.
Growing up in a town adjacent to Delhi meant that every trip that we took from Ghaziabad, be it to Chandni Chowk for yearly supply of notebooks and stationery or Kashmiri Gate for our car spares or Janpath Market for the clothes and trinket jewellery or Khadi Bhandar for my mother’s silk sarees, it had to end with a visit to Nirula’s at Connaught Circle.
In mid to late eighties, Nirula’s was the only go-to place in Delhi for that cheesy Pizza, that they served with tiny thumb sized bottles of mustard sauce and ketchup. And for an eleven year old me, travelling to Delhi became synonymous with that special treat.
Now pizza joints are everywhere and they hand-deliver it everywhere as well. Pizza is the new comfort food for all. These days when I travel with my kid, the inclination towards a pizza joint at airports or near railway stations is more than the South Indian rice dumpling ‘idli-sambhar’ or Punjabi chickpea gravy with fluffy deep fried bread, the ‘chhole-bhatura’.
The pizza giants have their franchise in almost all big cities, sometimes next door to each other. They compete with each other wooing with flavors that include five cheeses or chocolate-pineapple pizza. These commercial giants churn out the cheesy delights in their large electric ovens batch after batch for their hungry customers.
But I found my slice of pizza with real taste at family-run small dine-ins in lanes of similar small towns.
Auro Pizza, Pondicherry
Tucked away among other mundane shops on a footpath was ‘Auro Pizza’ at Pondicherry. More of a hole-in-a-wall, it still let fifteen people sit elbowing each other over cool fizzy beverages and assortment of pizzas slices. While it is easily miss-able from the way of its external looks, the atmosphere inside however is quite homely. It lacked the fine cutlery and fancy interiors but what it had was a large brick-lined wood-fired oven. And that made all the difference! With fresh rocket leaves, spinach, basil, shiitake mushrooms finding their place on the handmade thin pizzas that hinted at the faint aroma of the burnt wood, this little osteria beat the flavors of the pizza giants hands down.
Cloud Street, Kodaikanal
At another time in Kodaikanal, a sign board, the size of folded newspaper, pointed a tiny arrow to ‘Cloud Street’ opposite the government tourist office. The arrow pointed towards an ordinary house wall painted yellow flanked by similar ordinary gaudily painted brick houses that seemed to mushroom on the hill side. There was however no indication of any restaurant. A peeling paint narrow staircase led to the first floor. I had almost turned back to hunt for another place to eat but decided to ask for directions. Climbing up the stairs lined with small algae rich pots with dying plants I was surprised to be greeted by a neat large room with tables, cane chairs and the pregnant belly of the wood fired oven on one side. Yet again my taste buds were tantalized by flavors much different and tastier than the regular ones of pizza joints in bigger cities.
Mapro Garden, Mahabaleshwar
Then there is much popular Mapro Garden in Mahabaleshwar. A selling counter for the brand’s products of jams, jellies, fruit concentrates, chocolates and crushes, it also houses a restaurant. It is not just a pizzeria however for it dishes out sandwiches, fries, shakes, sizzlers and desserts besides hand-made thin pizzas for its eager customers whose loyalty to restaurant is not affected even by the lashing monsoon rains. Throughout the year, the restaurant is always spilling with customers. There at the center of the serving counter of the open restaurant is a wood fired brick oven. The pizza emerging from that raging kiln stole my heart with its fresh woody flavor even with simplest of ingredients.
A visit to another sea-side restaurant at Marine Drive in Mumbai where I grabbed the opportunity to watch the chef roll out a pizza, many years ago inspired me to try my hand at home. Now I make pizza from scratch at home sometimes, right from kneading the dough to the tomato sauce and top it up with various veggies from broccoli to bell peppers to home made ricotta. What it lacks though is that smoky burnt wood aroma.
It is in such small eateries in those small towns that the taste of Italy comes alive and these pizzerias stand up tall to the pizza giants reiterating the wise saying “Its the quality that matters after all and not the quantity”