Life has come full circle for Roberta Angelone. The Napoli-native was studying to be a teacher back in Italy and working part-time at a restaurant before India, and more specifically, Manali happened. “In the Seventies, I used to come to India for my vacations as a tourist. I first went to Goa and Mumbai but I didn’t like it there much; Manali though, was beautiful. Eventually I decided to stay there, it was so free”, she says, “Besides, I became very interested in yoga.” And while she may have given up teaching back home to open a restaurant which would come to define Manali’s culinary topography, today, having closed her home there “for good”, she’s back in Delhi to teach. Only this time it’s cooking.
When Angelone first opened Il Forno amid the pine cones that people the hill-station “some 30 years ago”, Indians weren’t exactly beating down the door. “In the beginning, we would only get foreigners and a few well-travelled Indians on vacation. The locals never really came by. I would be asked ‘what is this lasa-gana?’, and my al dente pasta was not exactly appreciated,” she laughs, “Because there were no ingredients available locally, or even in Delhi, at that time. We would have olive oil, olives, and pastas sent from Italy.”
It was about 10 years ago that Indian customers arrived at her doorstep, thanks to being exposed to the nuances of Italian cuisine and hearing of Angelone’s authentic offerings. “Everything I make is traditional Italian fare. My mother was raised in Central Italy, I grew up in the South and my husband’s family is from the North, so my cooking is a reflection of food across the country,” says the 56-year-old. The only thing she did have to compromise on was being limited to chicken and mutton and, sometimes, river fish. Beef was not exactly kosher and pork was only available sporadically and usually of poor quality. Interestingly, Angelone herself is vegetarian.
As word spread about Il Forno, the restaurant became a frequent pit-stop for film stars, politicians and other bigwigs out to enjoy some mountain air. “Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited the day after he left office. I remember the restaurant was filled with the army and police. He hadn’t come while he was Prime Minister because of security reasons but we used to send food to the Vajpayees’ home in Manali; his niece was an Il Forno fan,” says Angelone. Another celebrity client’s visit clinched her first book deal. “Kareena Kapoor’s personal trainer was working on a book and I told her I was also thinking of writing a book. She said why not write a recipe a day. On her next trip, I told her I had finished 85 recipes and she immediately called her publisher,” she says, explaining that it was the translation into English, and not the recipes themselves (“they’re all in here”, she says, tapping her head) that took time to compile. The result, Cooking Italian Food in India (Westland; Rs 300) is awaiting an official publication date.
Meanwhile, legal disputes led Angelone to leave Il Forno for Delhi a couple of weeks ago. Here, she is curating Italian cooking classes, with lessons ranging from five-course meals to full sit-down buffet meals for 15-20 people, which can be customised. One can also hire her to cook for a party at home. She hopes to open a restaurant in the Capital sometime in the future. But will she return to Manali? “Of course. Only this time I’ll be returning as a tourist,” she says.
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