It is exactly 50 years since Federico Fellini filmed La dolce vita (1959), his neo-realist tragicomedy about socialites, movie stars and gossip columnists. The film coined the term paparazzi, after the name of one of its characters, a freelance celebrity photographer called Paparazzo.
The somewhat forgotten Cucina Paparazzi, these days catering to walk-in trade from St George’s Mall, is hung with huge, black and white photographs of the famous: Evita Bezuidenhout snapped arriving at Heathrow Airport in the 1980s; Grace Jones; theatre producer Basil Rubin chaperoning Marlene Dietrich on her visit to South Africa in 1966. Rubin still hosts an Algonquin style, round-table lunch here every Thursday.
The Cucina Paparazzi might have the name, but no restaurant in Cape Town evokes the same wistful yearning for a little dolce far niente as La Perla. Opened by Italian immigrant Emiliano Sandri 40 years ago this year, it has been in the family ever since.
Initially located on Waterkant Street, it moved to Beach Road, the perfect promenade location in the 1970s for lunch-time boulevadiers and the jet set to enjoy after-dinner passeggiate. This is where the Junoesque women and their playboys hung out with the stars, to find themselves in the social pages, or later on in celebrity surgeon Chris Barnard’s saucy memoirs. He was here “keeping happy and up-to-date on female anatomy”.
That was before my time, and I’ve been eating at La Perla for 20 years, ever since I came of age in the late 1980s. The classic menu hasn’t changed; the music remains nostalgic Latin – Nina Rota, Cesária Évora. The older clientele know by name the dignified waiters in their starched white uniforms. The service is professional, though can be cold and offhand; the food at times is mediocre; the prices are always steep; but La Perla is an establishment that grows new loyalties, and stands apart from the constant openings, closings and takeovers of Seapoint’s myriad restaurant scene. Its persistent presence has made it a place of respite. A few months ago, I spied F.W. de Klerk (who has moved in up the road) quietly enjoying a meal on his own with a newspaper and SMSing on his mobile.
Sandri’s sons who took over the business introduced a cigar lounge and wine shop. For a brief spell, thanks to a rather decadent crowd of bon vivants, there was standing room only and permanently occupied toilets.
The faithful persisted, even as the horrid little orange patio chairs bent beneath them, the soiled, sagging umbrellas failed to provide adequate shade, and finding parking became increasingly frantic.
Now, after almost a year of building work, during which inconvenience the restaurant never closed, it is finally renovated; a good improvement, slightly expanded, with a cleaner look and better functionality, without having sacrificed the features that keep it unique. The heavy, wooden, carved Ceasar chairs and the fabulous lipstick ceiling lights are still in place.
There is room for a few minor changes: the cheap cutlery is more suitable for picnics; the salt is invariably solidified. The art on the walls is often ghastly, even though the Sandris opened the Stellenbosch Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery in 2006 and their list includes the likes of Edoardo Villa, Peter Clarke, Eric Laubscher, and 30 year-old Sibusiso Duma.
One concession to changing times is a plunge pool and cocktail patio replacing the lawn on the roadside. I vividly recall this patch of grass filled by nannies with their white charges and prams, while kugeldom dolled up to the nines enjoyed a liquid lunch and devoured the abomination.
If you arrive around noon, you may have steaming bread straight from the oven, if slightly moist and doughy, it’s welcoming. Although the menu is extensive, having meat, poultry and all the classic pastas, I find it hard not to order seafood when sitting in full view of the ocean, even more enticing since the carousel building was knocked down.
A starter of garlic chilli calamari (R60) never fails. Also Mossel Bay oysters (R18 each, but SQ i.e. seasonal quotation), the creamiest I’ve ever tasted. From their very varied shape and size, some shells nicely cupped others flat as a pancake, I presume they are wild and not cultivated. The Italian table salad (R50) is peasant style, always with boiled egg, olives, heads of lettuce and large cut crudité style carrots and cucumbers. For mains, the seared tuna (R120) is infallible, or the seafood tagliattele (R150), tomato based with generous amounts of mussels, clams, juicy shelled prawns and octopus tentacles.
All indications are this old celebrity hangout’s facelift will pay off handsomely.
La Perla Restaurant, Beach Road, Sea Point. Open Monday to Sunday for breakfast (10am until noon), lunch and dinner (until 11pm). Tel: 021 439 9538.
Cucina Paparazzi, St Georges Mall, Cape Town. Open weekdays 7am to 5:30 pm and 9am to 2:30pm on Saturdays. Tel: 021 421 3047.
This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 13 May 2009.