Memories of La Piazza Flood In as Iconic Restaurant Launches Commemorative Book at a Wine Bazaar Showcasing 30 Wines

The brief from the management left no one in any doubt why Valentino was making way for La Piazza. In a commemorative volume soft-launched on Friday, August 30, even as guests got to quaff 30 wines from nine countries, Shiv Jatia, Chairman and Managing Director, Asian Hotels (North) Limited, and promoter of the Hyatt Regency Delhi re-articulates the vision.

GOING DOWN MEMORY LANE: Julian Ayers (left), Area Vice President – North India, and General Manager, Hyatt Regency Delhi, and Gregorio Lostia, Chef de Cuisine, La Piazza, with a copy of the commemorative book.

AT A TIME when Italian cuisine meant macaroni and cheese or spaghetti and meatballs for the average Delhizen, La Piazza opened on July 4, 1994, after seeing its predecessor -- the fashionably named and stiff upper-lipped Valentino ("all black marble and peach upholstery," as its then manager Virender Razdan remembers it) -- shut down without a tear being shed over the loss. And the city was never the same again.

It made so much money -- and a table there was so hard to get -- that industry insiders started calling it the "Bukhara of Italian cuisine". It became so popular with the high and mighty that its long-time manager, Shaji Paul, who's presently the hotel's beverage director, was reputed to have the most coveted diary in the city, with names extending from Sonia Gandhi (the family unfailingly gets a particular corner table overlooking the daintily manicured swimming pool lawns) to Rajan Bharti Mittal, from Shweta Nanda to Ritu Beri, and of course the who's who of the resident Italian community.

La Piazza was the first in the country to serve real espresso, not the milky, chocolate powder-laced version we got at marriages. Another of it contributions to the Indian table was the tiramisu. But before the city could learn to say 'espresso', and not 'expresso', or find out why a tiramisu isn't one till it has savoiardi (lady's finger) biscuits, its Sunday brunch became the go-to destination for the elite. A quarter of a century has elapsed -- and it is still commonplace to see diplomats and corporate honchos, sans their power suits, saunter in for brunch in casuals, many of them coming after a swim or a game of tennis.

With La Piazza, India got to discover Italy's real cuisine and its regional complexities, and not hand-me-downs from Little Italy, New York City. Ironically, the man who made this possible is an Austrian, Hermann Grossbichler, whose romance with Italian cooking blossomed when he was a lowly commis chef in Switzerland -- and who has now fallen in love with India from his present perch at the Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty.

Grossbichler started planning La Piazza on August 14, 1993, from Valentino's kitchen -- and the first decision he took was to hire seven freshmen straight out of culinary college so that they could, like a "dry sponge", absorb all the knowledge he had to share with them. Likewise, Razdan, who was for long a general manager heading different ITC hotels, and is now the Executive Vice President, Reliance Industries Limited, and Head of Business Operations, Jio World Centre, was given a free hand to select his service team of 12.

The General Manager, David Wilson, whom I remember as a friendly guy from Manchester (he's now the general manager of the Waldorf Astoria at The Palm, Dubai), was then churning up the hotel with new restaurant concepts -- TK's, which introduced India to the teppanyaki grill, and Aangan, the first modern North Indian restaurant where Jiggs Kalra invented the Salmon Tikka, vied with La Piazza for newspaper column inches as the Hyatt Regency established itself as the city's No. 1 dining destination. Wilson can look back to his years in Delhi and nod with supreme satisfaction at having left behind two restaurants that have stood the test of time -- and Aangan, I believe, being ahead of its time, never got its due.

The brief from the management left no one in any doubt why Valentino was making way for La Piazza. In a commemorative volume soft-launched on Friday, August 30, even as guests got to quaff 30 wines from nine countries, Shiv Jatia, Chairman and Managing Director, Asian Hotels (North) Limited, and promoter of the Hyatt Regency Delhi, re-articulates the vision. The restaurant was to move away from the intimidating setting, complicated cuisine and stiff service standards of the existing 'Continental' restaurants, and cater to the more approachable style of the emerging new faces of old money, many of whom had just returned from higher studies in America or England, or had jobs that required them to travel overseas extensively.

They were the children of the forces of liberalisation that had been formally unleashed by Dr Manmohan Singh, then Union finance minister, in 1991. Rooted in their culture and confident about what the future held for them, they wanted to turn their back on the ceremonial dining style of the old 'Continental' restaurants.

"I still remember 4 July 1994, the very first day of operations of La Piazza," Razdan remembers in La Piazza: The First 25 Years. "Though we delivered good service and great food, we felt it still lacked that oomph factor. Maybe we were still stuck in the era of Valentino." Whatever apprehensions Razdan may have had, Delhi's elite just loved the pizzas and pastas of La Piazza, its Pizza La Piazza and Italian Smooch, its farm-to-table procurement policy, its trattoria-style decor, its informal yet efficient service style, its open, piano-shaped kitchen (and later, its Renato wood-fired pizza oven), and its full-bodied wine list (including, now, its own wine label bottled by Fratelli) ensured that a visit to La Piazza was like walking into the home of an Italian friend you've known for long.

It may have been years since Razdan left Hyatt Regency Delhi, but you can feel his pride when he writes: "The restaurant soon started witnessing daily a sold-out situation by 8 p.m. Guests had to wait for a minimum of 45 minutes and the waiting period used to go past midnight. ... We also used to sell 80-100 takeaway pizzas every day." Little has changed since those early days. La Piazza can start planning its golden jubilee celebrations.


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