Kathmandu:

Gaspare Davi started the Al Fresco in the late seventies in a shack near the swimming pool of The Soaltee and it served pizzas, a few pastas and was decorated with bunches of chillies and garlic.

“It was an instant hit,” recalls Pralhad Kunwar, now the Executive Assistant Manager of the Crowne Plaza. “I had just joined and Gaspare Davi had promised he’d give Kathmandu a restaurant that was inexpensive to create and would be popular.’’

Al Fresco moved to more elegant surroundings when suites for the first SAARC were built and the menu grew in direct proportion to its popularity. So there we were seated amid crisp napiary eating the Antipasti that was crispy bacon wrapped around bell peppers, Ricotta cheese, grilled and served drenched in a spicy tomato sauce from northern Italy. The Ricotta leavened the heat of the sauce and the capsicum added yet another texture, while the bacon walloped the taste buds.

Adarsha Dhungel, the young manager of Al Fresco, said accompaniments such as artichokes that leant a soft flavour came from Spain, while the cheeses were imported from Italy as was the recipe for the Romana soup that was reduced chicken broth made richer with eggs and a sudden kick of parsley.

An early cook book says, ‘’A good dish for a convalescent but not to be scorned by those in the best of health.’’ We wondered if the addition of egg in soup was taken to China by Marco Polo or brought to Italy from there.

The grilled polenta served with roasted vegetables and given a tartness with a balsamic vinaigrette was like a soft savoury cake made even more edible knowing that the cooking process involved steaming in specially designed cooking pots. Polenta’s of a fine consistency are notoriously difficult to make from scratch and are rarities in subcontinental restaurants.

... as is a perfect risotto. If you cook a risotto too much, it becomes mushy, and too little leaves the Arborio rice grainy. But the risotto with mushrooms cooked in a deliciously rich chicken stock was the stuff of dreams.

I was beginning to feel like one half of the married TV evangelist couple Jim and Tammy Fay Bekker, who achieved brief notoriety because Frank Zappa once ridiculed them in song and

Jim went to prison. Whenever the Bekkers dined out, they’d order one of everything on

the menu hoping the Lord was elsewhere. The first book about Pasta was written in 1005 by Martino Corno, an Italian chef. It did not include tagliatelle, which was “inspired by a nobleman’s love for the scheming but beautiful Lucrezia Borgia’s hair”, 500 years after the book.

Krishna Chaulagain brought on the tagliatelle with smoked salmon and cream with a flourish this understated but divine dish deserved. The smokiness and the laid back taste of salmon gently suffused the cream and the pasta was Al dente or ‘resistant to the bite’ as classic recipes demand. Alas poor ‘Lucrezias hair’ is described as ‘’long flat pasta’ in the menu.

The Romana saltimbocca was breaded pan fried veal escalope with sage and smoked ham in white wine sauce. It had a gamey taste and the white wine sauce did not dampen the crisp enthusiasm of the firm, thin escalopes. The flavour lingered.

Dal Bahadur Shrestha reventially placed before me the chicken breast stuffed with spinach and Nak cheese heightened with a calm red sauce with green pepper corns. It deserved reverence. It was soft one moment and sharp the next, and delectable always. The spinach bespeaks its Florentine origins, but it had travelled in style to Kathamndu. The sweet was extraordinary. Grappa is the liqueur made from what is left after wine has been casked. And grappa and espresso were the base of a gelato or ice cream that melted and took away the harsh, coarse full bodied peasant taste of the grappa-espresso mixture and produced memories of vineyards and cafés and early Italian ice cream parlours...

The tastes stayed as Upendra Kafle, who along with the others had done the heavy lifting required of an evening of tasting, saw us into the night while Mozart’s Marriage of

Figarro which had accompanied us through dinner, wafted outside with us. And we remembered that Mozart liked good food and the good life to such an extent that he once had to apologise for his waywardness by saying, “But I make beautiful music.’’

Any art, including cooking excuses a thousand transgressions. For Borgia style feasting call the Soaltee Crowne Plaza at 4274555.