A tribute to the Don

In memory of Giovanni Autunno of Don Giovanni who passed away on Thursday, July 11, 2019 at the age of 85

Giovanni Autunno of Don Giovanni

I discovered and fell in love with Limoncello because of Giovanni.

I’m not sure when this happened but I do remember it was at the first Don Giovanni in Juhu, so it must be around 15 years ago. He had invited me to join him and his wife Felicia for dinner. after the meal asked whether I’d like some Limoncello. I had never heard of it and unhesitatingly said yes. It’s home-made he said, see if you like it.

It was love at first sip. I rolled the thick, viscous lemon liqueur on my palate trying to squeeze out every last molecule of its sweet, acidic, citrus flavour. Since then I’ve tried Limoncello many times – at wine exhibitions in Italy and restaurants in Mumbai. But none matched the intensity flavour, or the heft of Giovanni’s.

The secret, he said, was using a base of pure alcohol. I was confused – consumers are banned from buying it in India, so how did he procure it. With a twinkle in his eye he revealed that he got an old Italian nun, who worked at one of the charities he supported, to bring a few bottles back from Italy. The irascible Giovanni advised her to tell the customs officers it was holy water from the Vatican if she was queried.

I’ll always remember Giovanni as a bon vivant, someone who embraced and lived life to its fullest. Born into a family of cooks he was a textile engineer by profession. As a young man he served in the Italian military and was also a sailor who took part in international sailing competitions. In his spare time he would sketch and paint with watercolours. He was also terribly dramatic and would perform for an audience of one.

Giovanni at the entrance of his restaurant

The first time I met him was in 2003 when I was writing reviews for Mid-day Metro supplement. He had finally opened his own restaurant Don Giovanni opposite the JW Marriott and was inviting journalists over to have a meal. But I already knew him by reputation. He was the man who had transformed Little Italy from a forgettable Indianised Italian restaurant to one of the best Italian restaurants in the city. When Little Italy decided to add Mexican food to the menu he exited. There was a brief spell at Ai Trulli at Gowalia Tank after which he decided to go solo with his own restaurant.

I knew just two things about him: he knew his food and was a very good cook; he didn’t suffer fools especially foolish journalists. So when I told him one of the dishes was wrong, I did so with some trepidation. He nodded, walked away but didn’t go into the kitchen. He ordered a portion for himself and after tasting it came back to tell me I was right. They had indeed messed up. From then on my palate was trusted and respected.

When the landlord decided to increase the rent, Don Giovanni moved from Juhu to Atria Mall. It was not an ideal solution, but an exigent one. By early 2010 he returned to a new, significantly larger space in Juhu. While the original Don Giovanni was about a 50 seater the new one was more than double the size. But there simply wasn’t, and still isn’t, a large enough market for traditional Italian at standalones in the city and in a few years he and Felicia decide to shut it down. He was also almost 80 by then, well past the age of handling the daily stresses of running a restaurant in Mumbai.

The last time I met him was about two years ago at the Italian National Day Celebrations. He had beaten cancer once, remained fit and active but needed a walking stick. He was visibly tired. That was the last time we met but he continued to send me jokes and sketches on Whatsapp and we spoke on the phone a couple of times.

Giovanni’s legacy was to create a space for diners and restaurateurs who wanted traditional, high quality Italian. These are the people who understand a Caprese needs just good quality tomatoes, mozzarella, basil and a dressing of olive oil. It doesn’t need croutons, black or green olives, or red and yellow peppers. They appreciate, and understand, handmade pasta, that is not swimming in sauce, pink or otherwise. It’s a small group no doubt, but I suspect it cut its teeth on his al dente pasta. My favourite dish was his penne alla vodka which he made with a red pepper cream, tossed with generous amounts of pancetta. I hope someone has kept the recipe.

I’m appending some of the pieces I wrote on him. They give you a better sense of the man and his story.

PUBLISHED MID-DAY METRO JANUARY 2003

Irrespective of their predilection towards windmills, mass executions or sober black gowns and tasselled caps, Dons are not people to trifle with. Annoy them and they’ll cut you to size. Don Giovanni is no exception.
Big and burly, Giovanni Federico, the mastermind behind the skilfully executed Little Italy and more recently Ai Trulli is no small potatoes. And at Don Giovanni, his newest restaurant you get a taste of how dead serious he is about his food.
Authentic is a word I am loath to use in the context of food, but after a meal at Don Giovanni I am sorely tempted to use it. Better sense prevails, so let it suffice to say that the food is cooked for an Italian palate and not an Indian one. Instead of the overwrought cheesy pastas, and exaggerated, topping-laden pizzas, the cooking draws on the natural flavours and simplicity of technique on which Italian cuisine prides itself.
The vast menu of intimidating breadth, is best dealt with after fortification from a quick sip of wine. Or you could make life simpler and allow Giovanni to guide you through it. While we deliberated and pondered over this novella-sized menu, we were served Caprese, a vegetarian starter consisting of a ring of tomato slices, drizzled with olive oil, topped with a sprinkling of oregano and chopped basil, arranged around mozzarella balls. Tomatoes have never tasted better than this. Ever! Clean, pure flavours of the ingredients, distinct and uncomplicated ring through, the seasonings combining to enhance but never smother the natural tastes.
Once again plain and unadorned, accompanied with nothing grander than basket bread, yet marvellously tasty was Affettati, comprising of a selection of Italian salami and Prosciutto Crudo, the famous air-dried ham from Parma.
As for the pizzas, forget about your garden variety, mass-produced pizzas; Giovanni’s closest competitors are the speciality five-star Italian restaurants. You’re unlikely to get a thin, crispy, perfectly balanced, pizza that literally melts in your mouth anywhere else.
And for once the vegetarian pizzas actually sound far more enticing than the non-vegetarian ones!
As do the soups which we very sensibly skipped. Italian soups can be dangerously heavy and are often a meal in themselves. Both the vegetarian Minestrone Italiano and the Fish Soup seem to be so inclined.
While the selection of risottos is comparatively limited, the options for pasta are quite substantial; once again weighing in favour of the vegetarians. Of the variety we sampled the ravioli was clearly the most exquisite. Stuffed with spinach, herbs, and cottage and parmesan cheese its velvety texture, delicately harmonious balance of sharp and sweet flavours were simply incomparable. Be forewarned, the Bolognese is closer to the traditional Bolognese sauce with only a hint of tomato and not the rich tomato sauce that we have grown accustomed to. Of the rest, the tomato-based Alla Matriciana, Arrabbiata, and Pollo E Peperoni are all uniformly good but the classical Al Pesto made from a sauce of blended basil, pine nuts, garlic, parmesan and pecorino cheese was strictly okay.
However the pork chops, suffered from an over generous helping of salt were an unmitigated disaster. Cooked to perfection they were unfortunately, completely inedible.
Desserts are available on a daily basis and is the only non-existent section of the menu. Naturally enough the dessert was Tira Misu, which instead of being ethereally light was rather dense and heavy. By far not one of the better Tira Misu’s I’ve had.
They also have an excellent, but somewhat limited wine list which includes a Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, the ever-popular Orivieto and the exorbitantly-priced but divine grappa – Sassicaia.
Don Giovanni is not cheap. A three-course meal for two would cost anywhere between Rs 550 – 1200 excluding taxes. It will however be worth it!

PUBLISHED TIMEOUT MUMBAI NOVEMBER 2004

There are two prominent signs at the entrance of Don Giovanni. One says simply ‘Authentic Italian cuisine’, the other more detailed lays down the rules of behaviour expected from children at the restaurant. Giovanni Federico ‘the don’ has earned much notoriety for his uncompromising attitude on both. His food has won recognition and plaudits, including awards from the Italian government; the rules have irked parents who frequently prefer to walk out rather than control their children. Sitting in a quiet corner of what is unquestionably the finest Italian restaurant in Mumbai Giovanni talks to Antoine Lewis about being an accidental Italian restaurateur in Mumbai.

What made you decide to open a restaurant in Mumbai?
Alore, I came to India in 1986 to open the Benetton chain because I am a textile engineer and in the textile garment business for 35 years. Then because I had some disagreement with the company, I left but stayed in India as long as I had money. After the money got over I returned to Italy but I come back again to be with Felicia, now my wife. When I was in Mumbai earlier, many people ate at my parties and liked my cooking so much that they would say, “Giovanni why you not open a restaurant?” At that time I was not interested because I knew it was a very difficult job – it requires much manpower. In Italy my family was in the restaurant business, but it is very difficult to run a restaurant there because labour is very expensive and we had to sell it for very little money. But when I returned and got a proposal to open one – even though I thought it was crazy that they wanted only vegetarian – I accepted and opened Little Italy which was a grand success.

What was the biggest challenge in opening a vegetarian Italian restaurant?
The language. At the time I spoke very little English and the cooks only spoke Hindi. Also, because they were used to working with a strong flame in Indian kitchens I had big problem in convincing them to cook on a gentle flame. There were many fights between the cooks and me over many things, someone even threatened to kill me, but the owners pleaded with me to stay back. The first few months were very difficult. Getting the taste of non-vegetarian dishes using only vegetarian ingredients was also a challenge. For the pieces of smoked bacon in the Amatriciana Sauce I substituted deep-fried aubergine to give the texture and smoked cheese in the sauce to give the flavour. Then for the famous Risotto alla Milanaise made with beef marrow I used arbi which has the same sticky texture. It went so well that my Italians customers couldn’t believe that I wasn’t using meat.

Is it possible to do authentic Italian food in Mumbai?
My food is absolutely authentic. I believe in traditional recipes not fusion cooking. In India, people make Arrabiata sauce with lots and lots of chilli and my customers ask for chilli, so I put some chilli – not much – because you can use chilli for Arrabiata. In many ways India and Italy are similar – it gets very hot in Italy too and to preserve dishes in olden times when there was no refrigerator they would use chilli to make meat that was slightly smelling more appetising. We also have a Chicken Diable which is spicy. But if someone says put chilli in the Ravioli then I refuse because the flavour of the ravioli is too delicate. Many clients have understood. Since we have done no publicity, everyone who knows of Don Giovanni has heard by word of mouth, so they know what they are coming for.

What about your policy on children in the restaurants?
I don’t believe children should be running around in restaurants – accidents can happen and they have happened. One of my waiters was scalded because a child ran into him when he was carrying a plate of hot cannelloni. Is it a good thing for a child to go into the kitchen and unknowingly pick up some hot dish? This is a restaurant, people come here to eat, people come here to relax, you must respect them also. It is not that I don’t like children. Many children come to the restaurant but they sit nicely at the table. They have good manners. I have expensive glassware, upholstery, chairs from Italy – if the child runs into something and breaks it who will pay, suppose they get hurt then what?

Foreign Legion Expats in the food industry

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