In Italy, From Cooking Class to Indian Banquets

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Courtesy of Faith Willinger


Years ago a delightful Indian couple, Raju and Hemal, took one of my cooking classes. We became friends, I visited them in Mumbai, and we stayed in touch. They contacted me last year because their son was getting married and the bride, who had studied at N.Y.U. in Florence, wanted to have her wedding in my hometown. Raju arrived in Florence in January with an entourage—Indian wedding planner, Italian wedding planner, brother of the groom, sister of the bride, two chefs, and more. They were planning to have 700 guests, mostly coming from India. The bride's family was vegetarian. I helped choose the Italian caterer and was invited to the June wedding, an exciting prospect since I'd been to a wedding in India and it was an unbelievable experience.

The invitation was lavish: beautiful calligraphy on the envelope, red rose with gold leaves embossed on the cover, seven pages, in English, with titles in Italian, to explain events hosted by different family members over three days. They'd be set in some of the most beautiful locations in the city. Monsoon Wedding meets A Room with a View. Would my wardrobe be up to the occasions?

The Pranzo di Benvenuto (Welcome Luncheon) was offered by the bride's grandmother at the Four Seasons, outdoors, in the lavish, manicured gardens behind the hotel. Dress code—casual, mostly European attire, with a smattering of saris paired with important handbags. The food was Italian, catered by Four Seasons chef Vito Molica.

I ignored the Italian food, opting for a final shot of Indian, featuring Benares street food (tasty potato and pomegranate fritters with tamarind chutney).

The Cena di Benvenuto (Welcome Dinner) at Palazzo Corsini, an impressive palace overlooking the Arno River, was offered by my friends, parents of the groom. Cocktails, wine, non-alcoholic beverages, and appetizers were served in the red-carpeted courtyard to women in gorgeous gowns of satin and silk with plenty of saris, embroidery, strands of pearls, and jewels. Men wore black ties or silk Nehru jackets. I wore timeless Wendell Rodricks, a fantastic Indian designer I met during my voyage to India, accessorized with Moschino and red silk Venetian slippers. Guests toured the ground floor rooms of the palace, including a private grotto. I chatted with Ritu Dalmia, chef-owner of Diva, an Italian restaurant in New Delhi—she was working with Galateo, the Italian caterer, consulting about Indian vegetarianism and preferences for Italian vegetarian cuisine. The dinner was upstairs, with cocktail stations, champagne bar, buffets set up in many rooms (truffle and gnocchi stations), waiters serving beverages, wines (Rossj Bass from Gaja and Ornellaia), and a disco in the Baroque ballroom, with live rock music in a room lit with blue lights but no disco ball—just a massive chandelier.

The next day, Giorno di Celebrazione, the Bhaat ceremony was held under a magenta awning in the Corsini Gardens—all the women in Indian attire, lots of chanting and milling around, a few dance numbers including one with kids and plastic guitars. The V8 Gourmet Group's Silk Events from London catered—they brought a team of 80 cooks and staff, getting visas for the regional Indian cooks, with street food from the Rajasthan region during the ceremony, followed by a huge Indian buffet (fusion salad of burrata, avocado, cherry tomatoes, curry leaves, mustard seed, and red chili, a big hit), with tables under umbrellas in the gardens. There were mehndi henna artists who decorated the hands of female guests—the bride had an armful, and I got one too. And in the evening, there was the Sangeet, at the Stazione Leopolda, a fantastic space for an event. Cocktails, wine, other beverages, and Italian appetizers were served while we waited for the big event on the stage—think Oscars meets Bollywood by way of karaoke, performed by family members. They had practiced for months with a choreographer. Dinner buffets were Italian—two pizzaioli, huge salad section, pasta cooked to order, risotto station, ample dessert zone, and Indian cuisine, once again amazing, from Kolkata, Jaipur, and Mumbai in addition to Lebanese—I ate lots of delicious things I couldn't identify.

And finally, La Nuova Vita, the wedding, at Villa Le Rose outside Florence. The hillside setting was spectacular—decorated with 25,000 roses. Attire was all-Indian, over the top, with serious jewels and seriously embroidered saris. The men had diamond, pearl, or ruby-encrusted gold buttons on their jackets. The bride wore a necklace—strands and strands of diamonds, and pear-shaped diamond earrings—the size of small pears! Varmala and Phere ceremonies—very mystical, followed by champagne and cocktails in the courtyard, then dinner amidst the roses. I ignored the Italian food, opting for a final shot of Indian, featuring Benares street food (tasty potato and pomegranate fritters with tamarind chutney). Check out a few pictures of the wedding here.

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Faith Willinger is a chef, author, and born-again Italian. She moved to Italy in 1973 and has spent over 30 years searching for the best food from the Alps to Sicily. More

Faith Heller Willinger is a born-again Italian. She moved to Italy in 1973 and was seduced by Italian regional cooking. Faith has spent more than 30 years searching for the best food and wine, as well as the world beyond the table from the Alps to Sicily. She has no regrets about mileage or calories. Faith was awarded the prestigious San Pellegrino award for outstanding work as an ambassador of Italian cooking. She lives full-time in Florence with her Tuscan husband, Massimo. Her son Max lives in Milan. She's the author of the bestselling (9th printing) guidebook Eating in Italy, the cookbook Red, White & Greens, and the narrative recipe book Adventures of an Italian Food Lover. Faith teaches in her kitchen in Florence on Wednesdays, supplied with freshly picked produce from her favorite farmers. Check out her web site at www.faithwillinger.com.

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