I’ve always been a sucker for Italian cuisine. I mean, with the carby goodness it has to offer, who isn’t?
Surprisingly enough, Italian eateries in Lahore are scarce. Oftentimes, restaurants that serve Italian serve items from a variety of other cuisines as well. Take Aylanto, for instance; on one hand we have crisp pizzas with bresaola, veal scaloppini and carpaccio, and on the other we have Chinoise fondue, escargot and blue crab gratin. Pompei, Lahore Social et all follow suit in this case. It’s a common occurrence. The only instances of authentic and nothing but Italian cuisine that I can think of are Cosa Nostra and Luna Caprese.
So I happened to be in Islamabad recently for a quick pit-stop to refuel and grab a bite. After consulting with a couple of acquaintances, I found myself seated at Zigolini’s on the ground floor of the Marriot along with five other diners. It looked like a hybrid between a cafe and a diner, and was apologetically empty around 2pm. The chef’s specials were chalked out above the windows looking into the open kitchen, and a brick-oven dominated a chunk of the restaurant.
We were hungry so we ordered like no one’s business. The buffalo mozzarella caprese salad for starters was all we needed because we were planning on going all in on the main course. Two pizzas, two pastas. Then some Thai food from Royal Elephant (I’ll get to that).
Bruschetta was complimentary. We were served eight pieces of toasted bread with chopped tomatoes and herbs along with two hearty servings of black olives. I showered my share with olive oil and parmesan (blasphemy, I know), and enjoyed every second of it. I don’t care, I do what I want. It was fresh, crisp and exactly the sort of started to get me, well… started.
The pizzas and the pastas pretty much arrived at the same time, which was great, but still no sign of the caprese salad. Tsk.
Both pizzas had an authentic crust with just the right thickness that was not too crisp; with scattered sauce and plentiful cheese, there was little to no room for criticism. The beef salami pizza with mozzarella championed the pizza lineup- it was simple, rich and just about damn perfect. Sprinkle on some crushed red chilies and ‘winner winner chicken dinner’, as they say. The other pizza was vegetarian, with sundried tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, hot peppers- basically the whole shebang. Fresh vegetables require little to no seasoning once placed in a brick oven, and every bite told you that the chef knew more about the art of pizza than you ever could. Probably one of the better pizzas that you can find in Pakistan, no bullshit.
The pastas were where opinions got somewhat divided. We ordered cheese-filled tortellini with turkey bacon in white sauce, and a linguine with calamari, shrimp and red snapper simmered in a tomato and caper sauce. The tortellini were bleh- the cheese filling was far too farmy for my palette, and a couple of bites meant an overdose of flavor, and not in a good way. The sauce was far too thick and the cheese seemed to overshadow everything else on the plate. The linguine, on the other hand, was phenomenal. The pasta was cooked a dente, firm yet flexible, and the seafood was so fresh you could still taste the ocean. The sauce was salted just right, and the serving size was great. The capers added a whole another dimension to the entree- now that’s what I like to see.
The caprese salad arrived halfway into our main course. I had a half a mind to send it back but once I glanced at it, I simply could not say no to that assortment of fresh buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes (and a sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper). The cheese was sublime- fresh and soft. And because it’s such a simple ‘salad’, that’s all it takes to wow me.
We had no room for dessert after eating every scrap of food on the table (this also included the Thai entrees that we had ordered). What we did have room for, was praise. The restaurant was quaint and empty, yet well run. The presentation was good- not excellent but good- but I can let that slide. The serving staff was receptive, accommodating and polite, and we left Marriot with a content smile, a partial food coma and a newfound appreciation for Italian cuisine in Pakistan.
Side note: The Thai entrees we ordered from Royal Elephant were a green curry with chicken and a Pad Thai with chicken. Both were spicy, aromatic and overall outstanding. We dearly miss the Royal Elephant here in Lahore. Pearl Continental, we’re looking at you.