Little Italy Completes 35 Years Of Serving Vegetarian Italian
Image Credit: Little Italy

When did affordable Italian food first make its entry in India? Most of you are likely to assume that while refined Italian dishes must have made an entry through five-star luxury restaurants in the big cities, affordable dishes like pizzas must have only become available to the public after global chains like Domino’s and Pizza Hut opened. Your assumption would be wrong, because India’s first Italian restaurant was set up way back in 1989 in Pune by entrepreneur Rajesh Mehta. 

In 1989, Little Italy emerged as the first homegrown brand that serves vegetarian Italian food through their first restaurant, La Pizzeria. Started in a parking lot in Pune’s Bund Garden area by the then 18-year-old Raj Mehta, the Little Italy group has over 100 outlets spread across 16 cities spanning three countries. The Gujarati-owned brand might have started with a pizzeria, but today they offer everything from crafted pastas to freshest Italian cheese and seasonal desserts. 

As they complete 35 years of bringing India’s vegetarians the best Italian options, Slurrp connected with the next generation taking over the reins, Amrut Mehta, the Managing Director of the Little Italy Group. Here’s everything he had to share about the journey his family venture has traversed over the years and where it is headed in the future.      

What inspired your father, Raj Mehta to start La Pizzeria in 1989? Why in Pune of all places?  

My father was inspired by a vision to introduce a fine-dine vegetarian Italian dining experience to Pune, filling a void in the local culinary scene. In 1989, he realized this vision by founding La Pizzeria, which later grew into the renowned Little Italy chain. Pune was chosen for its rich cultural diversity and vibrant culinary landscape, making it an ideal location for this new venture.  

Originally a hotelier, my father owned a hotel near the Osho Commune, which attracted many international visitors, including an Italian pizza chef who became his friend. This friendship sparked the idea to start a pizzeria. At the time, Pune's dining scene was dominated by Indian and Chinese options and La Pizzeria addressed this gap by offering something new and unique. It quickly drew a diverse crowd, including European and American visitors, contributing to its success and paving the way for its eventual expansion. 

As India’s first pizzeria and Italian restaurant, what was on the menu back then?    

Our journey began with La Pizzeria, which, as the name suggests, was initially just a pizzeria offering 10 different pizzas, each priced at just 50 Rupees, a significant amount at the time. As the years passed, we gradually expanded our menu to include antipasti, pasta, salads, desserts, and more, transforming into a full-service Italian restaurant. Many dishes from our early menus are still favourites today, including the Om Pizza, Nirvana Pizza, Bombay Pizza and Napoli Pizza. These were affectionately named by our Italian chefs, who were captivated by India and crafted these dishes as a tribute to the country. 

How has the La Pizzeria brand evolved into Little Italy Ristorante over time? What are the standout dishes today? 

In 1995, we made the pivotal decision to rebrand as Little Italy, expanding beyond just pizza to offer a diverse array of Italian dishes, resonating with the growing appreciation for Italian cuisine among Indian diners. The restaurant in Mumbai was a big success and was frequented by industrialists, actors and celebrities alike which took it to another level cementing Little Italy as an aspirational brand.  

Navigating this transition presented challenges, from sourcing premium ingredients to training Indian chefs in the art of Italian cooking. Yet, through experimentation and commitment to quality, we ensured that every dish served reflects the authentic flavours of Italy while catering to the nuanced Indian palate. Today, our menu is a celebration of artisanal Italian craftsmanship, showcasing a curated selection of gourmet cheeses and the indulgent earthiness of Tuscan summer truffles.  

Each pasta dish is meticulously handcrafted, embodying the culinary finesse that defines Little Italy. Our offerings are elevated with Tuscan black summer truffles, lending a luxurious touch to several signature dishes. Pinsas, a novel pizza style from Rome, adds a unique twist to our menu, complemented by wholesome salads featuring creamy burrata cheese. To quench your thirst, our refreshing mocktails perfectly complement the meal experience. And to conclude on a sweet note, indulge in our decadent dessert menu featuring Italian delicacies like Pistachio, Hazelnut and Limoncello, ensuring a memorable culinary journey for every guest. 

Tell us about Tutto Bene cafe. How does it stand out in the cafe space of Pune, which is quite vibrant?  

Tutto Bene Cafe distinguishes itself in the lively cafe culture of Pune by embodying a philosophy of "everything good," which is evident in its vibrant and welcoming atmosphere. This cafe excels in offering a menu filled with healthy, guilt-free options alongside decadent desserts, catering to a variety of dietary preferences such as vegan, gluten-free and keto-friendly choices. 

From the colourful and nutritious Smoothie Bowls to the Buddha bowls and from the breakfast specials of Shakshuka to the innovative Baked Burrata Panini, each dish is carefully crafted to offer a unique taste while promoting well-being. Tutto Bene also emphasizes the use of seasonal, locally sourced ingredients, which not only enhances the flavor profile of each dish but also supports sustainable dining practices. 

What about Acasa? What inspired you to start this brand? 

Acasa, established during the lockdown, pioneered the introduction of DIY home kits across India. The brand specializes in a unique assortment of premium grocery products, including fresh pasta, truffle-infused delicacies and gourmet cheeses, signature sauces and much more. Dedicated to elevating the culinary experience at home, Acasa enables customers to recreate restaurant-style Italian dishes with ease. Committed to making these gourmet products accessible to the Indian market, Acasa’s offerings are now available at all Dorabjee’s stores and Nature’s Basket, furthering their mission to enhance home cooking. 

After a 35-year journey, where have you guys expanded, and which cities will you be taking Little Italy to next? Tell us about your future.  

Recently, we opened our outlet in Delhi and Agra, marking yet another milestone in our growth trajectory expanding to North India, a market where we had no presence. Looking forward to expand our presence into new markets, particularly focusing on emerging Tier 2 and 3 cities like Lucknow, Bhubaneswar, Bhopal hold a lot of promise. Additionally, new regions like North and East India, where our distinctive products are poised to make a significant impact. Little Italy is preparing for international expansion, with plans to open our first outlet in London later this year, marking our entry into the UK. We also have plans to expand to the US and MENA regions.