How a restaurant in a parking lot in Bund Garden helped shape the world of international cuisine in India

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Story in the Indian Express on the influence an Italian sannyasin had on the founding of the restaurant chain called Little Italy, by Dipanita Nath, August 19, 2023.

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Raj Mehta was 18 and a workaholic. His fighting spirit would help make Little Italy a formidable brand in vegetarian Italian food

Raj Metha founder of Little Italy
Raj Metha founder of Little Italy at their Ganeshkhind outlet. (Express Photo by Arul Horizon)

Less than a dozen steps lead from a busy pavement to the door of Little Italy’s La Pizzeria in Bund Garden. Inside is a comfortable decor of wooden tables and stuffed chairs. A team of staff delivers plates of pizza, pasta and other European, mainly Italian, delicacies with drinks of choice. The atmosphere is smart, well-travelled and cultured – making it difficult to imagine that the restaurant had started in a parking lot, under a marquee, with folding chairs and plastic tables in 1989. The original name was La Pizzeria.

It was the initiative of an 18-year-old Gujarati hotelier, Raj Mehta, and a pizza baker who had come to Pune in search of peace at the Osho commune. The latter was given the name Tanmaya by the Osho order. “To be honest, I did not have any knowledge about Italian food at the time. I had never even travelled abroad,” says Mehta, 53. La Pizzeria became one of the first Italian restaurants in the country. It gave birth to a chain of Italian restaurants called Little Italy, which opened its 57th outlet in Delhi a few weeks ago and is present in three countries.

A different cuisine

Mehta’s father, who had an apparel business, bought a hotel called Srimaan and given it to him to run. Being close to the Osho commune, the 28 rooms of the hotel were constantly full of foreigners, among them Tanmaya. When Tanmaya suggested to Mehta that they start an Italian restaurant, the latter found his imagination triggered. Hotel Srimaan had a coffee shop but the idea of serving Italian cuisine was something different. The only space available, however, was at the side of the hotel where Mehta used to park his car.

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In the early days, everything was a challenge for a small Italian business in India. “I have been a fighter all my life,” says Mehta. (Express Photo by Arul Horizon)

At that time, eating out in India was a matter of choosing among Indian cuisine, especially south Indian, and Chinese. “When we started La Pizzeria, there were queues of people. These were only people from the US and Europe, who had been influenced by Osho. It was when we opened an outlet in Mumbai in 1995 – changing the name from La Pizzeria to Little Italy to reflect a wider selection of dishes – that we realised that Indians also have a liking for Italian food. Initially, when Indian clients came to the restaurant, they would find the taste alien as it was bland. But there were Indians who used to come repeatedly. Our 74 covers in Mumbai were full,” says Mehta. Among the clientele were industrialists, artists and film stars.

Italian cuisine rose in popularity during the Rajiv Gandhi years, with five-star hotels flying in chefs and offering authentic Italian food. Though Little Italy was keen to grow, Mehta was firm about not altering its fundamental policy – it is staunchly vegetarian. This was in keeping with Mehta’s traditions and Tanmaya’s practice of eating predominantly vegetarian food at the Osho commune. “Most of our restaurants serve alcohol. We believe that non-vegetarian involves killing a life but alcohol is not that harmful,” says Mehta. A vegetarian menu could have set the chain behind competition but did not, because Little Italy went to great lengths, literally, to present an authentic taste.

In the early days, everything was a challenge for a small Italian business in India. “I have been a fighter all my life,” he says. Raw material, especially, was hard to procure. “The items used to come from Crawford Market or we had to ask friends, who were travelling from Italy, to bring ingredients in their luggage so that we could be consistent about quality,” says Mehta.

In 1995, he undertook an adventure to bring Italian olive oil, olives and pasta to the country. “I went to a country in the Gulf, brought a container of food stuffs and declared it as furniture coming in,” says Mehta. On the floor of the restaurant, Mehta would have guests who said they did not want mozzarella, they wanted cheese. “Or, they would read Mozzarella on the menu and say that it sounded like something non-vegetarian,” says Mehta. In the kitchen, cooks who were experts at dal makhani and other Indian dishes, needed extensive training to understand the nuances of Italian food.

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