Italians take their food very seriously. So who better to take along, on a food quest to discover the best Italian restaurants in town, than a bona fide Italian couple? Carmen Da Costa and Angelo Battigelli maybe Italian, but they both share strong Indian roots. In the 50s and 60s, Carmen’s mother used to the run the Italian Guesthouse, on Residency Road. It was rather popular among the European tourists and expats. American soldiers stationed around Bengaluru during the Vietnam War also sought out this homely Italian restaurant for the authentic comfort food they served.
Our first stop on this culinary journey was Alba, the chic Italian restaurant at JW Marriott Bengaluru. Alba is one of the gastronomic capitals of Italy, famed for its white truffle, peach, and wine production. Chef Marouane Rahali has been heading this restaurant for about a year now.
Alba’s interiors with the grand chandeliers, creates a seductive dining space and sets the right mood. It is evident you are in for a culinary and visual treat! The reinvigorating conversation at our dinner table makes the experience all the more delightful.
Probably the best part about dining with true connoisseurs is the spellbinding anecdotes they share with you during the course of the meal. Carmen and Angelo have travelled all across Europe, USA, Southeast Asia, Australia, they have individually covered many African countries, and they have been to Ecuador and Brazil. There is not a lot of India they have not travelled to either. And their stories speak volumes of their vast experience.
The antipasto is the traditional first course of a formal Italian meal, and the contents vary greatly with the region. We started with an assortment of Bruschette - crostini topped with tomatoes, zucchini, chicken, and mushroom truffle. The Bufala Mozzarella – fresh buffalo mozzarella, semi-dried tomatoes marinated with parsley and garlic, basil, and drizzled with olive oil, and Lunigiana wildflower honey was exquisite. This was followed by Insalata di stagione con asparagi – a fresh, light salad with seasonal greens, asparagus, tomato, toasted pine nuts and lemon vinaigrette dressing. Chef Marou, as he is better known, loves to experiment with flavours and creates beautiful delicacies that fuse the best of the north and south. Our next amuse bouche, Mari e Monti was a perfect representation of this. Marinated prawns and scallops grilled with basil and sun-dried tomato purée, truffle and smoky Apple wood - it was the perfect symphony between the sea and mountains!
Legend has it that in 1889, the king and queen of Italy visited Naples. The queen, sick of the French gourmet food, asked the most famous pizza-maker in Naples to bake her pizzas in the palace kitchen. She loved the tricoloured one with tomato, mozzarella and basil. Consequently, the Italians invented the classic Margherita pizza and named it after their queen! We sat enjoying slices of the pizza Chef Marou had baked for us, greedily taking in all the stories Carmen and Angelo shared. Did you know that you should only use your hands to eat pizza?
Prosecco was our choice of aperitivo. Angelo’s family originally hails from Udine, which is about 70km from Trieste, a region where the grapes used to make Prosecco, may have originated. This region is famous for about 37 different varieties of wine! For somebody with such roots, it is impossible not to understand and appreciate their wine. And Angelo certainly knows his wine; while choosing one to go with the main course, he reflects “Italian wines just distinguish themselves!”
The Insalata di polipo had the chef’s signature twist with poached octopus, served with mashed Italian potatoes, cherry tomatoes, capers, and Taggiasca olives. Even the Italians were impressed with the harmony of flavours in this dish.
Pasta, Pesce e Carne
The wine of choice with the rest of the meal was a vintage Frescobaldi Pater Sangiovese. Smooth, full-flavoured with ultra-fruity aromas, this went perfectly with the Triangolini di Pollo we ate next. This flavourful chicken ravioli, served in a creamy sauce of roasted mushrooms, truffle oil was so beautiful, and an absolute feast in the mouth! The vegetarians had Calzoncelli di Ricotta – spinach and ricotta stuffed ravioli, in a creamy homemade sauce of basil and pine nuts.
Carmen, whose family comes from Rome, is a very good cook herself, and often invites friends and family for a traditional Italian meal. She tells us that Italians never use chicken in pizza, ravioli, or bruschetta. They usually use lean pork, or beef, or even seafood especially in the southern regions, but never chicken. Chefs have incorporated chicken into these recipes for the Indian palette.
The Gamberoni was a delight to the senses. This dish is a contemporary take on traditional Italian fare - jumbo prawns grilled just right, served with a citrus sauce and green lentil stew. These lentils are a part of everyday meals in the Northern provinces, as they are a good source of much-needed energy to survive the harsh winters. It was a perfect balance of fresh, light seafood and tangy lentils. Interestingly, Italians cook these lentils when ushering in the New Year, as they believe each grain of lentil brings you prosperity.
Even more exotic and every bit as delicious is the Medaglione di Soya Allaisolana made of soya chunks grilled and toasted like fish, and served with fresh tomato, olives, potato and mushrooms. One of Alba’s signature dishes is Ossobuco, which also happens to be one of Angelo’s favourites. This is a Milanese speciality of braised veal shanks, served with Risotto alla Milanese, and garnished with gremolata. Ossobuco in Italian essentially means a bone with a hole. Chef Marou’s rendition of this dish won Angelo’s heart. For those of us who did not eat beef, the chef very kindly, served Costoletta D’agnello – Sicilian-style herb-crusted prime lamb rack, served with couscous, sautéed spinach, dry raisins, and jus reduction.
Dessert, or as the Italians say, Dolci was a grand affair. Tortino al Cioccolato - a dark chocolate flan, served with assortment of berries and homemade pistachio gelato was a tease to the senses! The Panna cotta, an Italian dessert of sweetened cream thickened with gelatin was aromatized with vanilla and served with berries and strawberry liquor. Chef Marou makes one of the best Tiramisu in Bangalore that is sure to 'lift you up'!
Meet the Chef
Chef Marou joined us for a chat, as we were finishing dessert. Being the youngest of four brothers, it usually fell on him to help his mother with the cooking and cleaning, and he credits most of what he has learnt to this phase. His father always joked that he cannot really cook so at 13, he took it as a challenge. He went, and met the chef at a famous restaurant in his hometown where his parents dined regularly. The chef there handed him a big basket of onions and knife. “He told me the knife is going to be my best friend if I really want to become a chef.” Chef Marou fondly recollects. He worked there without pay, picking up the basics, and eventually learning to make good sauces and handmade pasta.
He wanted to become a pilot but could not because of poor eyesight. His father was a food lover and dreamt of opening his own restaurant someday. With that in mind, he went to culinary school, and later worked in Sweden and Brussels where he trained under a Michelin star chef. Before coming to Bengaluru, he worked in Muscat for four years and learnt a lot about Thai, Indian, Indonesian and Arabic cuisine there. At 28, Chef Marou is already heading one of the best Italian restaurants in town.
As we sat there talking, sated with the scrumptious meal, Chef Marou’s sense of humour and his easy nature definitely added to the evening’s joy. He enjoys bringing the best of authentic Italian cuisine to the table and strongly believes that food can taste good only if cooked with love; it is like growing and nurturing a tree. The new menu he has created for Alba revisits exceptional Italian cuisine through his personal interpretation, with remarkable twists and flavour combinations. He utilizes top Italian produce to ensure authenticity, as well as locally sourced ingredients.
Alba at JW Marriott is a must-visit for the romantic ambience, delectable food, and their charismatic chef.