World Champion Pizza Acrobat Twirls & Serves His Signature Pizzas at Mumbai’s JW Marriott
Pasqualino Barbasso, the Sicilian pizzaiolo from Cammarata, may be the pizza world’s ‘twirling dervish’, but he says he’s as good as the 70-odd original pizzas in his repertoire, which is why he’s so picky about his flour. Barbossa can be seen in action at the Mumbai JW Marriott’s Lotus Cafe (9:30 p.m.) and Mezzo Mezzo (10:30 p.m.) daily till May 17.
WHEN Pasqualino Barbasso says he’s a Bollywood star, he may be exaggerating slightly, but it is true that he appeared in the Suzuki Slingshot television commercial a couple of years before he wowed diners with his pizza acrobatics at Lotus Cafe, the all-day restaurant at the JW Marriott in Mumbai, a couple of days ago.
Two-time pizza acrobatics world champion, Barbasso spins faster than the front wheel of a motorcycle on top gear and whirls like a dervish who has just encountered God, but his pizzas make you ask for more as much as his gyrations with pizza dough. “My guests come to my restaurant expecting to have something more than pizzas, but unless I get my pizzas right, why would they want to come in the first place?” asked the good-natured pizzaiolo after I couldn’t stop praising his Arrotolata.
The objects of my admiring gaze were the rolled-up pizzas with artichoke puree, artichokes and mozzarella as the base, topped up with bresaola (delicious air-dried aged beef, which originated in Valtellina, an Alpine valley in Lombardy), arugula (rocket) and slivers of Parmigiano Reggiano.
We were at the JW Marriott’s Mezzo Mezzo restaurant, with its gregarious, much-tattooed Italian Chef, Davide Cananzi, whom many of you will remember from his days at the Hyatt Regency and The Park in Kolkata. Married to an Indian and the ambassador for India of the worldwide organisation of Italian chefs, CIM, Cananzi, a Sardinian who grew up in Tuscany, wasn’t stretching the truth when he said he had to sweat to get Barbasso to Mumbai — “as the saying goes in Italy,” he said, “I lost 70 shirts before the world champion chef agreed to come” (for his third visit to India).
Barbasso is also very picky about the flour he uses, so Cananzi had to really sweat to locate the flour that would satisfy the world champion. “Each flour is different from the other, “and once you get the flour right, with the right proteins and the desirable degree of elasticity, making a good pizza becomes easy.” The sign of a good pizza, Cananzi pointed out, is that even after it’s been on the table for five or ten minutes, if you lift one slice up, it doesn’t droop — that’s the first sign of a perfect crust. Cananzi, to prove his point, held up a slice of Sapori Di Bosco, which is another of Barbasso’s signature pizzas topped up with Mozzarella, Italian tomatoes, porcini, pork sausage and pepperoni.
Cananzi’s effort must have paid off, for pictures and videos of Barbasso’s gravity-defying opening performance at Lotus Cafe on the night of May 9 are all over Facebook and Twitter. The hotel couldn’t have asked for more copious user-generated publicity. Back at Mezzo Mezzo, Barbasso recounted how it took him a week of training followed by unrelenting practice for a year to become a champion pizza acrobat.
After he wore the crown in two successive world championships, Barbasso is in demand all over. His international tours, which took off with Beirut more than a decade ago, keep him away from home and his pizzeria Falco Azzurro (at Cammarata in central Sicily) one to three times a month. Rave reviews have ensured he now lives out of suitcases for the better part of each month. He arrived in Mumbai, for instance, after performances in Japan and from there, he will fly to Shanghai.
He may be an international star, but Barbasso has no doubts about one thing. He’s as good as his last pizza, so he keep innovating without getting too dramatic about it. I tasted the power of his simplicity in his Asparagi e Salmone pizza, a delicately balanced combination of asparagus puree, asparagus, mozzarella, smoked salmon and herbed ricotta cheese.
Barbasso has shown the world you can make memorable pizzas without using tomato puree, but first you’ve got to get your flour right. He’s also leaving behind a legacy at Mezzo Mezzo, which, by the way, means half and half in Italian. He has created a Mezzo Mezzo pizza, one-half of which will have his favourite Indian dish, palak paneer, and the other half, shahi paneer, with mozzarella of course and speck (or strips of pork fat, in the non-vegetarian half).
My Mezzo Mezzo experience would’ve remained incomplete, had I left without Cananzi’s famous tiramisu, which he served, in the old southern style, out of a large bowl. It is made with ingredients Italians have used traditionally to create this iconic dessert — mascarpone, savoiardi (ladyfinger) biscuits, egg yolks, espresso and sugar. In this particular tiramisu, though, the most important ingredient is mother’s love.
Cananzi’s mother shared the recipe with him and she gets mighty upset if he attempts to tweak it even a bit. You can cut through the dessert, layer after layer, the mascarpone making way for the savoiardi core soaked in coffee, all combining to give you a heavenly experience. This is one recipe Cananzi refuses to share. So be it, as long as he’s happy to keep serving it.