I still remember the first visit, a few years ago. It was a sweltry afternoon. We had been walking around town since morning. A dangerous combination of hunger, heat and exhaustion had impaired our civility by the time we reached Tanto.
We staggered in and seated ourselves at an empty corner table. A few minutes later, a saree clad lady approached us. She smiled somewhat reluctantly. I reflexively quantified the smile in my head; newly accustomed to rating restaurants and equating service with exaggerated smiles – often excusing flavourless food and guiltily giving 4 stars because I wasn’t sure if I deserved such deliberate politeness – I knew no better. She placed a distinctly uninteresting laminated sheet enlisted with names of dishes and left. There were a variety of Italian and Mediterranean options: soups, salads, pasta, pizza, risotto, desserts and beverages.
We ordered two familiar thin crust pizzas and were dilly dallying over beverage preferences when she walked out of the kitchen and said, “order the iced tea, it’s homemade.” Her advice was somewhat peremptory and I couldn’t say no.
It isn’t unusual to be deceived by the demeanour of Tanto, a somewhat pizzeria; its appearance so modest – bordering underwhelming if your expectations have been overstated.
For a place where tables covered with chick mats, and plastic chairs almost exude indifference, attributing any character, particularly an Italian one seems… outlandish.
Now, to put things in perspective, the idea of an award-winning Italian restaurant that has been repeatedly sold to the cosmopolitan Indian is spotless. Intimidatingly white linens and muffled dining demand sophistication and an adequate degree of savoir faire, from the consumer and the server. Everything is measured – the smiles, the portions, the outfits; any less, any different and it would never be Italian enough to qualify for a nomination.
Excusably, by virtue of its appearance, one would misguidedly perceive Tanto as antithetically basic, consumed by its un-Italian tropical surroundings. The patio canopies shared by human visitors and the neighbourhood dogs and cats who spend their time harbouring under the outdoor tables, hankering for a treat.
I thought it best to put aside my scepticism concerning the questionable authenticity of this (Italian dhaba, if you please) set up and focus on the heart-warming aroma of freshly baked, well-seasoned bread, wafting towards us from the wood-fired oven; followed by the awkward visual of sensational pizzas approaching us on incompatible stainless-steel plates.
Tomato, cheese, basil and olives, we kept it absolutely authentic. Then pineapple, corn and whatnot, my curiosity to sample the tropical-Italian merger got the better of me. Two glasses of the homemade iced tea. Hesitantly, one caramel custard.
I’ve never met Daniel. He’s the Italian from Paris who spent his childhood in Tuscany. In 1973, he visited Pondicherry, and kept coming back since. Ultimately in 2008, he opened Tanto, as an Auroville enterprise. Should I believe this Italian’s idea of an Italian café or the one that has made me believe I know Italian food, or both, or none?
I did not care to document the finer details of that first experience but I have come back every year since. I believe that I have become a better eater over these years. I have learned to observe those who cook and serve the food. I have gathered that the contentment or disappointment one feels after tasting the food is an extension of the energy of its cultivation-to-plating chain. And I have concluded that the length of the chain is inversely proportional to the taste of food.
At Tanto, the chain begins every morning, I’m told. Fresh tomatoes, rocket (arugula), basil, lemons and pumpkins are plucked out from the organic kitchen garden and more vegetables are supplied from the Auroville community farms and the local market. The fish is picked out by Daniel from a nearby village and fresh cheese comes in from the cheese farms within the community.
Nothing is allowed to overpower or alter the flavour and freshness of the produce. There are no canned ingredients, only tubs filled with brand new harvest, freshly prepared sauces, artisanal cheese, fine quality extra virgin olive oil and organic spelt which is used instead of the usual flour to make pizza and pasta.
Once the supplies are in, the prep begins early in the morning with Viji cutting the vegetables, Kalvi crafting plump pillows of ravioli, Dhanalakshmi working on the vibrant, piquant sauces, Punjolai brewing the heavenly, invigorating iced tea; some of whom I’ve briefly met.
And, there’s Vijaya.
I saw Vijaya many years ago
from a distance
I think in a saree
pallu tucked in of course
today she’s in a cotton suit
still unflinching, she runs the show
her statement golden jhumkas swinging
as she rolls the dough
bottle green apron
speckled with spelt
a matching makeshift bouffant
wrapped around the head
she swiftly applies the sauce
which reminds me of her bindi
a perfect bright red circle
a tattoo of her mastery
in one rhythmic move
like a warrior queen
with a long peel
she thrusts the pizza in
as the mushrooms bake,
and the dough becomes crust
by the crackling fire,
she starts over
enacting a flawless replay
that cannot be made any better
earphones plugged in, orders pouring in
she’s out front, as always
by her workstation
the wood-fired oven
which she lights every morning
and adorns with holy vermillion
this pizza is adequately Italian
the pizzaiola, unmistakably Tamilian
Every time I go back, I visit her workstation to greet her and she looks at me with a puzzled expression. Then a few seconds later she flashes a big smile. I always wait for her to recollect. Plus, sometimes she tosses freshly baked mushrooms into my hands while I’m standing by the counter, marvelling at her efficiency. This time, like every time I greedily ordered two pizzas, plus the spinach and ricotta ravioli plus a pitcher full of iced tea and stood by the oven for my customary ASMR experience – watching the cheese melt and the dough balloon up.
Tanto pizzeria is undemanding. The food, true to Italian philosophy, is boldly straightforward. It coaxes you into complacence and spoils you into confusing every day for a Sunday.
It delivers an understated farm-to-table experience without the hype and deliberately subtracts the heaviness both from its food and ambience.
Run by remarkably talented women who seem to have rejected the idea of small portions and who will smile at you triumphantly only when they see you satiated and intoxicated with laziness, sliding down your chair into a snooze. And then they will remind you of dessert.
Translations and detailed descriptions are provided to give a better understanding of the story to people from different cultural backgrounds across the globe.