Italian food was the first regional cuisine to go truly global. Thanks to pizza and pasta, not to mention ice cream, the inventive Italian kitchen ranks as one of the world’s favourite cuisines. Even restaurants that are not Italian serve Italian dishes. On menus from Dallas to Delhi and Bloemfontein, you will find lasagne, risotto and osso buco.
Yet the visitor to Italy soon discovers just how varied Italian cuisine is within the nation’s borders. The great divide used to be between north and south, with the north favouring butter and polenta and the south olive oil and pasta. Although politically and economically the north conquered the south, in cuisine the south won outright.
Eating in Italy can be confusing, as David Gilmour forewarns the traveller in his excellent potted history, The Pursuit of Italy. In Rome, breakfast is colazione and the midday meal pranzo, but if you ask for these in Milan and Turin you will get lunch and dinner respectively. On a restaurant door, solo per il pranzo means only open for lunch in Rome, but in Vicenza it means only open for dinner. On menus in Tuscany lamb is agnello, but it is abbacchio in Rome. Most confusingly, pasta may appear as minestra in the north.
Pasta itself has a bewildering variety and there are many variations on any particular shape. In Bologna I had tortelli and tortelloni (reputedly based on the shape of Lucrezia Borgia’s bellybutton); in Ferrara it was called tortellini and in Capri these little parcels are known as prigionieri. English menus are often inaccurate and misleading. It is best in Italy to ask for the Italian menu and consult the English menu if they have one. This variety in the home country is reflected in good Italian restaurants abroad with genuine Italian chefs. In South Africa, where Italian eateries are among our oldest restaurants and the owners are often from the second generation, the basic divide is between pizzerias (many not Italian owned or run) and trattorias.
As the owner of Mezzaluna in Loop Street once told me, emphatically: “We will never serve pizza here!” Sadly, his unforgettable rich spaghetti with golden yellow sea urchin coral is no more. Mezzaluna folded along with Cape Town’s other admired Italian eatery, Limoncello.
Il Leone, part of the Mastrantonio restaurant group, has kept a loyal following and holds sway as the city’s upmarket Italian trattoria. Efficient service makes it a success with the business crowd. On fine days the patio on the street is popular. Prices are fairly steep for food of a good standard, although not exceptional. You will not go wrong with chef patron Daniel Toledo’s simple dishes made with fresh ingredients: prosciutto with melon, caprese salad, grilled sole or kingklip.
Two new Italian places promise to give Il Leone a run for its money. Mitico Pizzeria e Spaghetteria has created quite a buzz. Gianni Vigliotti and his nephew do the rounds of the tables to check whether all is well with the clientele.
Here, the caprese salad is elegantly presented and the mozzarella is buffalo. Pizzas are wood-fired and have a thin crust, closer to flammkuchen than the traditional Italian-South African pizza. Of the pastas, choose the homemade varieties such as fettucine (with a beefy Bolognese sauce) rather than the spaghetti or penne.
There are high hopes for Café Giulia. Although it opened where Miss K was a few months ago, it still has that pre-opening feel; the shelves not quite organised, the lunch waiter hardly trained.
The peripatetic chef, who is from Livorno in Tuscany and has worked in many places from Spain to Puglia, takes the trouble to explain the food in detail if you ask, although English is not his first language.
The menu seems to change often and the portions are moderate. There are also specials, such as the Livornese speciality cacciucco, a seafood stew, which depends, said the chef, “on the weather for the fishing”.
The prosciutto is of high quality and speaks for itself. The crispy pancetta with egg and homemade spaghetti (a rarity) had an initial bitterness to it, but dissolved the longer one savoured the pancetta in one’s mouth.
The millefoglia with round, soft pastry layers, an unexpected dash of sudden citrus and garnished with grated pistachio was near perfect.
The chef dutifully took down my booking with my name and two people for 7pm, Sunday night. However, when we turned up, we discovered the café was closed on Sunday nights. Some things are still lost in translation, it seems.
Café Giulia, 65 Main Road, Green Point. Tel: 021 439 9559.
Il Leone, 22 Cobern Street, Green Point. Tel: 021 421 0071.
Mitico Pizzeria e Spaghetteria, 71 Kloof Street, Gardens. Tel: 021 422 2261.
First published in the Mail & Guardian 16 November 2012.