Paolo Collavii was 16 years old when he stepped into the world of gastronomy and embarked on his culinary career on a cruise ship kitchen as a trainee cook. Dropped out by the military school while in his teens, the young maestro joined the cruise ship kitchen to earn a living and knowing little that he will be spending the next five years upgrading him professionally while working on the sea. Now with a culinary experience of more than four decades all around the world under his belt, this quinquagenarian has recently joined as Executive Chef at Zigolani, the Italian restaurant at Marriott Islamabad.  Born in a small town called Como, in Italy bordering Switzerland, Collavi’s childhood was not a bed of roses. “I was very young when my parents got divorced and financial crises at home cascaded depriving me of all the excitements and experiments which a normal childhood deserves.  I learnt cooking by watching my mother in the kitchen all the time cooking for others to make both ends meet,” he explains as we settle down for a big hearty gastronomic experience.

There cannot be two opinions on the fact that Italian cuisine has made its footprint all over the world.  It is also true that the authenticity and the originality of the cuisine have been compromised due to the infusion of local tastes and ingredients substitutes.  Some of the commonly-known and savoured omnipresent Italian dishes include pizza, pasta, risotto, lasagna  for main course,  crostini, antipasto platter, meatballs, prosciutto  for snacks and  gelato, cannoli, tiramisu, panna cotta  for desserts and of course a single shot of espresso to wash down the savoury.

“Climate and natural landscape have played a major role in shaping regional Italian cuisines introduced to the world of gastronomy. Creamy risotto and other adroitly prepared flavoured dishes predominate in the north of Italy whereas olive oil and tomato-based recipes come from the south. Similarly, access to both the Mediterranean and Arctic seas makes fresh seafood very dominant,” the chef informs.  

Interestingly, Italian products often carry names indicative of the origins. Locations are so important to many Italian food products that a law exists to protect the authenticity of the products produced in the specific region. 

Italian products come in various shapes and sizes. Italian cheese ranges from the soft, mild Buffalo Mozzarella to hard salty Pecorino made from sheep’s milk. This variety of cheese caters to all taste buds from nutty to salty as well as savoury to tangy tastes. Similarly, the wide range of bread and pasta can be found throughout Italy which differs significantly in size, taste and texture from large chewy ciabatta loaves to thin crunchy grissini breadsticks both on opposite ends of the spectrum.

“Traditionally Italy is unified by a national concept of classic meal structure. Rather than serving up everything in one or two courses, Italian dinner habitually includes an array of many small plates enjoyed in succession, giving diners an extended time to savour food and company.  Meals progress from antipasto (appetizer) to the first course of pasta or other starches, a main dish of meat for fish with a simple side vegetable, followed by salad, cheese, fruit, and coffee.” Having said that Collavi also cleared out that every country has its own eating habits and he is not here to turn the apple cart upside down.  “I don’t want to bring any major changes in the serving manners rather my focus will be on introducing and adding some traditional dishes close to the likings and taste buds of the Pakistani guests,” the chef explained as the server placed crostini on the table. A crusty oven-baked bread, brushed with olive oil and topped with thinly chopped tomatoes, it shattered between the teeth, offering the perfect contrast to the juices oozing out of the tomato congregation. As the tongues started to tantalise, in walked the servers with pizza diavola, melanzane parmigiana, zuppa di pesce allo zafferano and taglita de manzo as introduced by Chef Collovi. 

 Pizza diavola which means devil’s pizza is originally quite a spicy devil and no wonder popular among the denizens of Islamabad.  The dough of the pizza was prepared by the chef using his hands, the thinly layered sauce mixed with pasta to each base and spread evenly, followed by a good pinch of salt sprinkling, then topping the 12-inch diameter dough with mozzarella cheese, adding fined sliced beef salami and finishing it off with an olive oil drizzle before putting the plate under the fire. Right from the oven, it was lip-smacking. Mozzarella cheese had made inroads in the dough while under fire and the salami had taken its toll being crusty as well as tender to chew. The wooden platter was polished off in nanoseconds. 

 Taglita de manzo was a beef dish which just melted in the mouth.  Evenly seared beef cut portions, drizzled in balsamic vinegar, ground black pepper, packaged with tomatoes and rocket leaves tossed in olive oil and lemon juice, accompanied by parmesan shaving and it was just divine and  surely worth of a space on the plate

As the chef explained that the likes of Italian street foods, such as gelato, panini sandwiches, brochettes are quite on the go throughout the world but no street food is as ubiquitous as pizza. He was of the opinion that despite pizza’s global status, most international pizzas bear little resemblance to the thin, crunchy crusts invented in Naples. Served with only a minimal topping of garlic and herbs or fresh mozzarella and basil on sparsely smeared tomato sauce, this tasty wood-fired bread has a distinctive flavour. Going back to the history of Pizza, he informed that the tomato sauce garlic, herb variety called pizza marinara is said to be the oldest variety of pizza named after a Neapolitan fisherman whereas pizza margherita was in honour of Queen Margherita using red sauce, white mozzarella and green basil to represent the Italian flag. In spite of all pizzas all over the world, the classic Naples pizza remains a perfect symbol of the beautiful simplicity intrinsic in Italian cuisine and with a huge following of aficionadas.

The showstopper of the sunny afternoon was none other than the dessert, Tiramisu. The presentation by itself was impressive work of a craftsman rather than a chef. 

The finger biscuits were well soaked, layered with a mixture of whipped egg yolks, sugar, coffee, and mascarpone cheese and flavoured with cocoa powdered. The catch 22 here in this irresistible slice was the mascarpone cheese creating a balancing act and not letting the taste buds ignoring its presence.