In conversation with Chef Matteo Arvonio, Italian Chef, Mezzo Mezzo

With almost 23 years of culinary experience, Chef Matteo Arvonio brings with him a deep-rooted love for Italian flavors and authentic cooking styles. He strongly feels that a cuisine of a place reveals a lot about its culture. Having trained across the globe at various reputed hotels, Chef Matteo loves refining original recipes with creative presentations and modern cooking techniques. ‘Before joining a place, I take into consideration the project of the restaurant, the people, quality of food provided and other factors,’ he says. Currently appointed as Specialty Chef at Mezzo Mezzo, JW Marriott Mumbai Juhu, he is happy to be back here in Mumbai and is all set to pamper the Indian palate with his lip-smacking preparations. Read on as he passionately talks about Italy and its delectable food.

From Italy to Mumbai:
Chefs Take:
Food is one of our proud cultures – like art and language. Just like in India where every state has a different cuisine, similarly in Italy. If you don’t live there, you can never get it right as each region has something different to offer. Seafood couscous is a very famous dish available in a particular area in Sicily. If you don’t go to that area, you won’t try the dish anywhere else. At Mezzo Mezzo, I have only refined and revised original Italian cuisine by drawing inspiration from the various regions I have lived at in Italy – be it from street foods in Piedmont, local markets in Tuscany, fine-dining or gourmet restaurants in Sicily, Veneto or Sardinia. I am proud of my cuisine and I aim to keep it’s authenticity with every dish.

Fun Facts:
– Piedmont specializes in meat preparations while Sicily in meat and fish. Tuscany, on the other hand, is famous for its legumes, soups and stews while Florence is known for serving breads without salt. If there are twenty regions in Italy, each region has its own specific cuisine and if the region is big, you can find almost four – five different types of cuisines within that region
– Chefs across various regions prepare similar dishes using different recipes so each dish has its own unique flavor

Choice of Ingredients:
Chefs Take:
Every dish must be made using fresh ingredients. However, finding fresh ingredients is a challenge I face all over the world. Unlike Italy, where there are markets consisting of fresh products, here I have to work with the ingredients that are easily available. Herbs like rosemary, thyme, sage and basil, extra virgin olive oil, garlic and tomato are main ingredients used to prepare a dish because they help to maintain a balance. I always prefer using light ingredients that add flavor to my preparation. If you taste my fish, you will taste the flavors but you will also get a taste of the fish. Italian food appears simple, direct and easy to understand but there is a lot of effort that goes into making a dish what it looks like. The power of some ingredients is also amazing. For e.g. a specific type of red prawn available in Sicily is best enjoyed with extra virgin olive oil and salt. Sea urchins with salt, oil and pepper tossed with a pasta promise a blast of flavors in the mouth. I love to work with pork too. Traditionally, roast pork is kept for 6 hours and is served for a family of 10 people. But I try to use modern techniques by maintaining the authenticity and flavor. So I slow cook it for 14 hours and the taste turns out to be something very unique. When I’m with family, I cook it the traditional way but when I’m at the restaurant, I cook it the fine dining way.

Fun Facts:
– In the North, people use a lot of vegetables, meat, beef and lamb while in the South, people make use of fresh pastas like Lasagna, Tortellini among others along with pork
– Meat also differs from place to place. In the coastal region, fish is the king of the menu because good quality fish is available in the area
– 90% recipes use extra virgin olive oil. Traditionally, butter was used in almost every dish but now since so many people are health conscious, it has been substituted with extra virgin oil as it makes the dish flavorful, lighter and healthier
– Apart from the choice of ingredients and vegetables, the cooking technique is very important too as it helps enhance the flavors and keep the ingredients fresh, light and crisp. Meat and fish need to be fresh too. While preparing a dish, the sauce shouldn’t be overpowering either.

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About the cuisine:
Chefs Take:
If they open a 5-star hotel in any part of the world, one restaurant will surely be Italian. The cuisine has evolved around the world because it is easy to understand. It’s like comfort food. Our work is to create a dish that is fresh, clean, direct, easy and flavorful.

Among the many dishes available in Italy, pasta or pizza are most popular all over the world. But for us, that doesn’t really give justice to Italian cuisine as that is just the middle course. Authentic Italian cuisine starts with an appetizer, is followed by a middle course that could include either a pasta, pizza or risotto depending on the area, a main course, dessert and cheese. Pasta has become the representative of Italy because it is easy to make and pizza because of its simplicity. Its more like street food. If you want something that’s faster and easier – go to a pizzeria. Since both are versatile, it gives chefs the freedom to create a recipe of their choice by keeping in mind the balance of the dish. That’s why they are so popular world over.

Fun Facts:
Pasta:
In Italy, there are two kinds of pastas – fresh and dry. Fresh is made with different kinds of flour like refined, wheat, semolina and whole wheat flour while dry is made with semolina flour. A strong flavored meat goes well with a strong flavored flour.
For e.g. whole wheat flour goes well with lamb, Tagliatelle goes well with bolognese, Spaghetti blends well with fresh tomato sauce or aglio-olio while Fucilli is best enjoyed with a tomato or pesto based recipe as it can keep the sauce inside.

Cheese:
Cheese is a great tradition in Italian food – each region follows a different one. Some regions have many varieties as they make their own cheese. Almost every shop will have approximately 15 different counters full of cheese. Some are regional while some will be easily available all over Italy
– Only 8-10 kinds of cheese are famous all over the world – very limited in comparison to what is available in the country
– Piedmont alone has around 80 kinds of cheese.

Pizza:
In Italy, a certain kind of flour is used for pizzas. This flour is only available in the country and cannot be exported to any other place. Hence, there will always be a difference in the pizza that is eaten in Italy in comparison with a pizza eaten anywhere else in the world even if the chef has used the same recipe at both places to prepare it
– Water also plays an important role. The quality differs from place to place. Even in Italy, the quality of pizza in one area will be better than another area because of the water used. There, pizzas turn out lighter and crispier than in India
– A perfect pizza also requires sufficient amounts of cheese. The type of cheese chosen, depends on balance & taste of the flavors. Mozzarella is used as a base to give the cheesiness but not to add flavor. For flavor, there are other kinds of cheese. Most pizzas in Italy use two or more kinds of cheese.
For e.g. While serving something strong like sausages, use a strong cheese like Gorgonzola with onions in between, or Mascarpone with salmon. While using asparagus, use a more delicate flavor otherwise it will overpower it. If a vegetable has a lot of taste, highlight it with goat cheese to get a kick of the taste

Bread:
– Breads of different shapes and sizes are available in bakeries. Some will be crispy while some will be special breads of the day made with different kinds of flour
– They are chosen as per taste and requirement. Few breads go well with appetizers, few with cold cuts, few with pizzas – it all depends on the flour and shape. It is something that is enjoyed all through the day, even more with a cheese platter.

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I had such an awesome time chatting with Chef Matteo and learning fun facts about the country and it’s varied culture. By the end of our conversation, I was very curious to know which place in Italy serves authentic Italian food. So I asked Chef and without a second thought, he promptly said, ‘Take a plane to Italy. When you reach, take a parachute and jump from the plane. Wherever you land, you’re sure to get authentic food.’

Cooking tip – Enjoy when you’re cooking. Be passionate. Go to the market, pick vegetables and smell the ingredients. If you are involved right from the beginning – through the process of buying, cooking and presentation, the dish will surely turn out well. Cooking is more about passion – knowledge comes with experience.

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