Walking into Tashkent's Affresco Restaurant recently, I could have been entering an upscale Italian establishment just about anywhere. The inviting dining area, equipped with comfortable leather chairs and polished wooden tables, is decorated with copies of famous frescoes. On the serving counter stands a vintage copper and brass espresso machine; bottles of Italian wine adorn the bar.
In the basement, however, a whole other world awaits very important clientele. The restaurant sent local artist Bobur Ismoilov on an inspiration-seeking trip to Italy. Upon his return, he let his imagination run wild, decorating a series of VIP rooms according to a hodgepodge of Italian themes and clichés.
The walls of one room, for example, are adorned with black and white photos of singers and actors from yesteryear – stars like Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn, and, of course, Frank Sinatra – wolfing down plates of spaghetti. Another room features a mural showing a traditional Sicilian street scene.
Things start to get strange, however, when you enter the “Mafia Room,” which is decked with mug shots of infamous Mafioso figures and posters from Hollywood gangster classics such The Godfather and Donnie Brasco.
But the pièce de résistance is the clammy VIP chamber that recreates Al Capone's Alcatraz cell. It’s the full prison experience: The room’s metal door is made of bars, from which dangle a pair of handcuffs. There’s also a red velvet couch.
Affresco's menu tends toward standard Italian fare, but cooked with more accomplishment than is usually achieved in Central Asia's Italian eateries. The prices are higher than average for Tashkent, but the food -- homemade pastas, hearty risottos and crisp pizzas -- is quality.
Personally, I find it a bit unnerving to eat while mobsters stare down at me, but the VIP rooms do a roaring trade. The restaurant even claims to be a hit with romantics. According to its website, more than 100 couples have popped the question in Affresco's unusual surroundings since it opened its doors a couple of years ago.