By Shevlin Sebastian
Photo by Ratheesh Sundaram
On Christmas Eve, 2014, Claudio Rucher was going through a lot of tension. At his Pizza Italia restaurant, at Fort Kochi, things were spiralling out of control. It was not easy for him to teach the local chefs how to make pizzas, Italian style, and to manage the customers who came from all over the world.
“At that time, I was thinking, ‘I am from Rome, and trying to sell pizzas in another country, even though I have been living in Kerala for several years,’” he says. “I felt dispirited and wanted to shut down the restaurant.”
At that moment, redemption arrived. An Italian couple, Teo, 35, and his girlfriend, Emma, 33, stepped into the restaurant. They ate Claudio’s pizzas, and loved it. But they also noticed that Claudio was looking troubled. So they spoke to him. When they heard about his problems, they did the unthinkable. They set aside their holiday plans and spent one month helping Claudio.
“Teo and Emma worked from morning till night,” says Claudio. “They helped me to find the ingredients locally, cleaned the place, and interacted with the customers.”
Today, the Pizza Italia is a popular spot and has got rave reviews on Trip Advisor and Zomato. The USP is that Claudio serves authentic Italian pizzas made in a traditional oven.
This oven is made of bricks. There is a gas burner inside which is aimed at the bricks. Once the burner is switched off, the bricks remain hot for several hours. The temperature inside is anywhere between 250 to 300 degrees Celsius. When Claudio places a pizza inside, it gets cooked within three minutes.
Another unique aspect of the Italian pizza is the use of herbs like fresh basil, rosemary, and oregano that serve as the toppings. And, amazingly, whenever Claudio returns from Rome, like he did, a few months ago, he brought 200 kgs of items, which included ceramic cups and saucers, spoons, knives, long handles and herbs to be used in the restaurant.
As for the menu, Claudio serves 33 varieties of pizza. They include the Pizzas Cappricciosa, Nostromo, Marinara and Margherita. “The Margherita is the most famous pizza in Italy,” says Claudio. “It has garlic, fresh basil, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and extra virgin oil.”
For the Indian clientele, he has come up with the Pizza Kerala. This consists of tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and paneer. To keep the fish-loving locals happy, Claudio has invented the Pizza Fort Kochi. “This has squid and prawns in it,” he says, with a smile.
Claudio had set up shop in Fort Kochi because he expected that the foreign tourists would be his main clients. Indeed, many people from Germany, America, France, Spain and Italy are regulars. “After a while, they get tired of eating spicy Indian food,” says Claudio. “So they are happy to come to my restaurant.” But he is also surprised that many of his customers are North Indian tourists, as well as Malayalis. “I am so happy about it,” he says.
But Claudio is unhappy about the use of ketchup on pizzas by Indians, Germans and Americans. “It spoils the taste,” he says. “In Italy, if you use ketchup, the chef will come out of the kitchen and shout at you.”
So what is the way out? “There is a special way to make sauce,” he says. “We use fresh tomato every day. It is cooked in the oven to remove the water. Dough and water are enemies. Then we mix the tomato with garlic, aromatic herbs and extra virgin olive oil.”
The end result is that everybody likes his pizzas, including the difficult-to-please Italians. “Do you want to savour a little Italy in Kerala?” says tourist Enzo Bossio from Rome. “Then you can come to Pizza Italia where you will find the people very welcoming and a pizza prepared artfully.”
(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)