There is a story about two Italian soldiers who, as prisoners of war, hungry and desperate, spoke to each other about what they were going to cook that night. They’d describe the recipes exactly: what ingredients were needed, how to cook the dish. They were creating an imaginary recipe book.
It’s stories like these — and there are many different versions —– that bind Italians across the globe to their culinary history. And the Italian diaspora — where communities in countries as disparate as Brazil, the US and SA, of course — retain strong links to their origins both through their cooking and the particular restaurant culture they have created in their adopted countries.
The history of the Italian people in SA started way back in the 17th and 18th centuries, when a small number of Italians settled here.
Then, during World War 2 more than 100,000 Italian soldiers were interned at the Zonderwater prisoner of war camp near Pretoria. It was the biggest of its kind built by the Allies during the conflict.
After the war these prisoners returned home, but a large number of them then returned to settle in SA. Today, an important part of our Italian community is still made up of descendants of that group of migrants.
It’s almost a cliché that the Italians’ passion for art and culture is infused with a passion for food. So much so that the Italian ministry of cultural heritage & agricultural policies has declared 2018 the year of Italian food. It’s the perfect excuse to revisit some old friends — and make a few new ones too.
The first step of my journey takes me to Gianni Mariano, owner of Mastrantonio, many Joburger’s go-to Italian restaurant, in the Sandton neighbourhood of Illovo. I book a table for our meeting —– and people constantly arrive at it for a handshake and chat with Mariano. Throughout, in typical Italian fashion, he invites me to eat. Eat!
"Let me get you something else. Have some more," he implores, demonstrating that for Italians, to eat is not just to nourish; it is a celebration of community, of having a good conversation and, of course, of life.
He explains: "Technically Italy is one unified country, but there’s a huge divide between north and south — and the tapestry of the different regions and different weather patterns in between — and what people farm and therefore cook there.
"It is this diversity that is so interesting," he continues. "There’s the north with its potatoes, rice and cheeses. In the south there’s sweet, delicious tomatoes, olives, olive oil and ricotta cheese."
And thus, the pizza.
"On one level," says Mariano. "Pizza is and has always been survival food — street food — as in, let’s have a slice of pizza to tide us over until lunch time. But, as in all Italian food, there needs to be a balance. My granddad would say, if you have only that which is essential on your pizza, it’s good for you. More ingredients, it becomes poison.
"Nowadays the poor pizza has to carry so much we shouldn’t even call it a pizza. The original pizza had a reason for existing — the base existed on its own with perhaps just a touch of olive oil when it was served.
"Then followed the Napolitana, for instance, which carries anchovy, capers and a little bit of tomato passata."
Legend has it that Queen Margherita of Savoy, the queen consort of the kingdom of Italy by marriage to Umberto I, visited Naples and the royal palace of Caserta. A special dish was prepared for her using mozzarella cheese, tomato and basil.
The dish became the queen’s favourite and from then on was called the Margherita.
Like pizza, pasta is enjoyed worldwide in every permutation, but here too there are rules that should be obeyed.
"My grandfather taught me, if you eat pasta, every forkful should have a coating of the other ingredients. And when you have the final mouthful, you also have with it the last of the food and there should be nothing left on your plate. That means we haven’t used too much sauce and there’s no imbalance between the sauce and the pasta," says Mariano.
He adds: "My granddad had three descriptions only for food: good for you, a waste of time, or poison. Italians have eaten like that for centuries. It’s all about nourishment and balance."
This central thread of food binds Italian conversations — and being together as a family around the table.
A family fortune
I speak to Pretoria-based culinary legend Fortunato (Forti) Mazzone who, like Mariano, comes from the south of Italy. He made his name at the family’s multi-award-winning restaurant, Ritrovo, which he has now closed to concentrate on his new venture, Forti Grill & Bar, also in the Jacaranda city.
Mazzone says: "For Italians in SA, family is sacred. My father left Italy at 18 to seek his fortune and help his family back home in war-ravaged Italy. The south of Italy was particularly badly damaged by the war and it was not uncommon for the young men of the time to leave for SA and other countries around the world to seek a new life.
"My late grandfather and my family here in SA always got together on Sundays. It was a sacred time. We would gather at the family farm with all my aunts doing the cooking, and eat outside under the fig trees.
"We have continued this tradition and to this day we have a large family lunch every Sunday.
"The atmosphere is always beautiful, and special. That is our religion. The religion of shared family and food. Long, slow, expansive meals with plenty of pasta, loads of vegetables, at least two types of meat and fish and always a sweet treat and cheese afterwards."
But as Forti points out, many of the young Italians who escaped the economic ruin of World War 2 came from the south of the country which has always been associated with poverty, though no less rich in terms of its culinary history. They took with them the Mediterranean-influenced cuisine of the south, so it’s no surprise then that South Africans associate typical Italian cuisine with dishes that have their origins in southern Italy.
For northern delicacies, look no further than the Milanese-born, award-winning chef Giorgio Nava. His 95 Keerom restaurant in Cape Town celebrates the food of that region. A risotto experience — in which different ingredients enhance this splendid Arborio rice-based dish — is one of the jewels in the crown at his restaurant.
While many Italian restaurants now simply list starters, main courses and desserts on a menu, a good number still respect the Italian culture of separate courses at the dining table. Dolci Café in Craighall Park is one such place.
They lure you with the appetiser (primo) that on their menu includes cured meats, a salad or a soup dish. This is followed by il secondo — chicken, meat or fish, which comes with a separate dish of vegetables.
Again, the mantra I hear from so many Italians: "Food isn’t just nourishment, it is life," says celebrated Luciana Righi, who also comes from the north of Italy.
Righi opened the much-loved Tre Nonni some years back and went on to the even more famous Assaggi in Illovo. Until recently, she also presided over Amarcord Osteria in Blairgowrie. How apt that Righi’s Amarcord was named after the classic Italian masterpiece by film director Federico Fellini. The film is about good food, family feasts and fond memories.
Righi has now joined her daughter, Jackie Righi-Boyd, at Dolci Café.
Here they also focus on authentic northern dishes. "Growing up and being with your mother in the kitchen, smelling the aromas, stays with you for the rest of your life. It’s about family; memories of home, stability, and love," says Righi-Boyd.
As she chats, she’s flanked by a portrait of her great-grandmother, great-grandfather and her grand uncle that was originally displayed in her mother’s Tre Nonni restaurant.
She continues: "Italy is a very varied nation, and you can throw a stone and hit a delicacy that is created in one area only. The food we sell here focuses on the Emilia-Romagna region in the north of Italy, where we come from."
This region, recognised as the culinary heart of Italy has, among other ingredients, supplied the world with an array of glorious cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino.
So the tapestry that is Italy is now also reflected in how people from that country honour their history here.
Every year on the Sunday that follows November 4, the Italian community pays tribute to the memory of fellow citizens who, despite the hardship of war, gave life to an experience that created such closeness between Italians and South Africans.
After helicopters drop petals on the graves at Zonderwater that day, friends and family get together to celebrate. Over food, naturally.