How a legendary European aperitif turned out to be the harbinger of a friendly neighbourhood Kolkata snack bar. The Campari story.

Your friendly neighbourhood snack bar Campari

The Campari conundrum

"You must go to Campari for the cutlets and rolls," is what many of my readers often tell me when I go to Kolkata from Mumbai.

I had of course heard of Campari before I had moved out of Kolkata twenty years back. My mesho (maternal aunt’s husband) had told me about it. He had offered to take me there but the plan did not materialize as the shop is located in Dover Lane which didn’t fall in our way.

This, coincidentally, was also the time when I had first come across the alcohol brand named Campari. The father of my other mesho, was a big fan of this red coloured aperitif, and would often have a peg before dinner.

I did wonder back then if there was a connection between the two names.

The long march to Campari

I tried to visit Campari many years later for lunch once. This was on a day when I had gone to conduct market research focus groups at a venue near by. The shop was shut however. “Opens at 4 am,” I was told by folks hanging around. I left disappointed and wondered why it was shut.

I got the answers to both these questions when I finally managed to visit the restaurant during a recent trip to Kolkata. I had gone there with a dear friend, Kolkata based food enthusiast, writer and diehard Campari fan herself, Rukshana Kapadia.

I was overwhelmed with a sense of deja vu the moment we stepped into this small snack bar, even though I had never been there before. It was 6.30 pm on a weekday evening and the feel inside reminded me of the parar chop cutleter dokan (neighbourhood snack bars) that I would frequent in the residential areas of south Kolkata in my college days. 

A typically summery Kolkata heat and humidity induced sense of languor permeated the shop which is not air-conditioned. A couple of high tables were placed inside for people to stand and eat by. I noticed a steady flow of customers, who belonged to all age groups, walk in while I was there. They placed their orders and then stood in silence if alone, or spoke in whispers if they had company, till the food arrived. Once it did, they ate with quiet concentration and then moved on looking very pleased with life. The hushed tones of the place were near church-like. This was clearly a temple of food.

That 80s show 

Roll is love

I ordered a mutton roll at Campari. I requested for the onions to be fried in my roll, as that’s how I like them, and without any sauce added in. “Peyaj ta bheja de,” my instructions were relayed by the folks at the cash counter to the cooks across the kitchen window grill.

My roll was soon ready. I took my first bite and that’s when the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle seemed to fall in to place.

The roll was nice but not exactly what I had in mind when I ordered it. The paratha was crisp but a tad on the thicker side, the mutton boti (pieces of goat meat) inside were a bit moist, as if they had been taken out of a kosha mangsho (slow cooked mutton with a thick gravy).

Yes, this was the mutton roll of the Bengali run parar roller dokan (street side roll shops) of suburban south Kolkata. Shops which were an integral part of my growing up years in Kolkata. 

Not the mutton roll with thin and flaky parathas and firm and yet juicy kaathi kebabs, that I had later learnt to love in places such as Nizam’s (which is said to have invented it), Shiraz and Zeeshan and so on, the Muslim run Moghlai restaurants of Central Kolkata. The latter are open all day from lunch onwards. The neighbourhood snack bars on the other hand, would open for business only in the evenings and then shut by dinner time.

It was but natural that these would be the hours of operation of Campari too. It clearly was a neighbourhood cutlet shop, distinct from the more famous but impersonal restaurants located in the commercial districts of central Kolkata.

Each bite of the mutton roll that I took at Campari that evening made me smile. While I would have an egg roll every evening after school in Kolkata, a mutton roll was a rare delight. It was more expensive than the egg roll and my mother was convinced, or so she said, that dog meat was served as mutton outside and we were not allowed to have it. So, if I did manage to sneak a mutton roll one day back then the thrill was comparable to that of a forbidden romance. Which would be any romance back then. Studies come first and all that jazz after all.

Meet the Campari family 

Adipto Mitra, doing his grandparents proud

I was about to step out when done, satiated with my roll, when I spotted a young man sporting the warmest of smiles sitting at the cash counter. I went up to him to see if I could find out the reasons behind the mystery of the short operating hours of the shop.  

I found out that his name was Adipto Mitra. He is the grandson of the late Ashoke Mitra, the gentleman who had opened the restaurant way back in in the 1979

During our conversation, Adipto told me that his favourite dish to eat at Campari are the chicken cutlets. “I’ve grown up on them as you can see from my bhuri (belly),” he said with his characteristically disarming smile.

It is possibly a mix of a sense of duty and the love for these cutlets, which made young Adipto sit at the cash counter of this snack bar after he completed his masters in journalism at the Jadavpur University. His grandmother, who had run the business for eighteen years after his grandfather had passed away, had hoped he would do so one day. Adipto decided to take on the baton from her after she had passed away. This was just when he was about finish his studies and was looking to pursue a career in writing. 

“This is what she would have wanted. The rest can wait,” said Adipto.

While there are a few talented women chefs, home chefs and restaurateurs who we know of and laud today, running a small snack bar is not what one would expect the average Bengali middle class Bengali lady to do in the Kolkata of the 70s and 80s. Yet, the late Mrs. Nandita Mitra did so, with full support from both her staff and her customers, and of course her little chicken cutlet chomping naati (grandson).

But then this was not a family that believed in following the road well-travelled. Her husband, for example, had quit a a job as an engineer in Germany to come back to Kolkata and then set up this snack bar. Opening a simple ‘dokan’ (shop) was pretty much unheard of then among the academic loving and job oriented Bengali bhodroloks (middle-class gentry), but that is exactly what the late Ashok Mitra did!

A friend gave him the recipes for chops and cutlets, which Mr. Mitra then modified to make their taste universally acceptable and their quality consistent, before he opened Campari.

There is a time for everything

Like I always say, a roll is a snack and not a meal. Non-Bengalis
will never understand this but grandpa Mitra would agree

“Why is your shop open only in the evening? Can't you change this? Makes life a lot easier for us after all,” I asked Adipto.

"Campari will probably never be open during the day. My grandfather had opened the place to be one where he could serve foo that people could snack on in between meals. Especially in the evening. After he had returned to India, he realised that most of the snacking options available for one to have after a hard day's work were not good for one. So, he set out to make something by using better ingredients which was comparatively healthier and yet soul satisfying. He kept the shop open only between 4pm to 8pm even though more hours would have meant more business. This is because he believed that one should have one's dinner at home and not at a snack bar. He would not even let me have my favourite cutlets from Campari after 8 pm," explained Adipto to me. "That is why I have kept the things he would have wished. I do not serve food before 4 pm or after 8 pm. And I give a weekly off to my staff. Dadu would have wanted that." 

And why the name Campari? 

Just two boys who love their rolls. With Adipta Mitra

“My dadu, or thakurda (paternal grandfather) actually, discovered the drink Campari in Germany just before he had returned to India, and fell in love with it,” said Adipto with a bashful smile. “He named his shop Campari in the hope that one day his shop too would be as famous.”

I bid farewell to young Adipto after making a mental note to have the cutlet the next time I was here and stepped out when I bumped into Madhura, who is a reader of my blog. She told me that she lives in Mumbai now but had grown up in Kolkata. She was accompanied that evening by her sister who lives in London but is a former Kolkatan too. Both are diehard Campari fans Madhura told me. Madhura had come to buy frozen and ready to fry cutlet bases at Campari to take back to Mumbai for her husband.

“There are many Campari fan clubs consisting of former Kolkatans in Mumbai and across the world too,” explained Madhura. “Taking back these ready to fry cutlets are a ritual when any of the members visits Kolkata.”

I guess one could safely conclude that the late Ashok Mitra’s dreams had indeed come true at Campari.

Address: 155B, Gariahat, Kolkata

I'd done a phone video when at Campari and you can see that here:

And now some good news.  I am thrilled to share that I have been featured as a part of the Impact magazine's cover feature on influencer marketing. I had started this blog ten years back as a lark and even today I look at is a personal food diary which others are welcome to read. I guess it is the support of all you who have brought me where I am today so thank you for your support.

Here's the link to a very well written article which will
interest those who want to know more on the subject: