It is appropriate for one of Stellenbosch’s finest eateries to be situated in the down-town area, Lower Dorp Street way: for up in the town’s more gentrified quarters the inhabitants are far too busy dealing with their Banting diet-induced constipation and protein-fuelled halitosis to appreciate the wonders of a restaurant called Asta. For Asta is about pasta, pasta and more pasta with a bit of pizza thrown in for those who like their carbs crispy, flaky and cheesy.
The family behind Asta have been around Stellenbosch for some time, and in various guises. There was a coffee and sandwich joint near Die Braak which then moved to even tinier premises in the Black Horse Centre. The latest Asta is a bit airier, a bit more restaurant than claustrophobia-causing Italian closet eatery. The menu is a bigger and the wine list longer, but the style and atmosphere remains Italian of the charmingly detached kind.
And when it comes to Italian, I much prefer the detached and slightly offhand approach to those places where strangers are greeted with hysterical shouts of “Chow! Bella!” from some sweaty Mamma smelling of Pond’s face cream and garlic, her calf-head sized tits wobbling disconcertingly as she rolls sheets of lasagne.
The Italians have a reputation for la dolce vita. But hombré, when it comes to cool and grumpy, the Italians can give the Germans a go. Unlike the arrogance surrounding the Krauts’ inbred rudeness, however, Italian insolence is airy, self-deprecating and oddly entertaining.
Asta is by now famous for the elderly Italian gentleman who is to be found in the role of the maître d’, but who I call Capo Morte. Said gentleman has distinguished lean features, meticulously manicured facial hair leading to a statuesque nose and smooth-skinned patch of head as bald as a ripe aubergine. An expression of sombreness that would give any undertaker bi-polar depression is complemented by an irrefutable air of authority, while a propensity for and ability of violence of the quick, clean and fatal kind hovers above him like a hummingbird whispering the tune to The Godfather.
Speak softly love…..
Visiting Asta recently for a quick dinner, I noticed worried looks on the faces of my dining companions when I approached the entrance carrying two bottles of wine, well-knowing that Capo does all the welcoming. Daring to imply that the establishment over which Capo presides is unable to supply its patrons with a suitable wine is deemed as life-extending as walking into a Meadowlands shebeen wearing a Helen Zille wig.
But you have to understand the guile required by this bit of theatre. Just walk up to Capo and greet assuredly as he begins looking you up and down with those snaky eyes; watch the thin slivers of lips move towards a snarl as he sees the wine in your hand and then you just nod impatiently in the direction of your table. Pass by his rakish presence and hope the piercing sensation of a stiletto being plunged between your shoulder-blades remains unexperienced, for now.
Asta’s patrons are loud and they are eating and drinking and having a great time. Families, middle-aged couples and a few fuck-weary students all appear alike whilst ripping off wads of pizza with red-wine stained teeth and shovel forks of saucy pasta into greasy smiling mouths.
This is the place.
We open a bottle of Meerlust Merlot 1996 and a Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon 2011. A very tall, very black and very stressed waiter shows some interest and plonks down menus. These tell of anti-pasta starters and bruschetta. Pastas. Some pizza. Chalkboard specialities, too.
One of the professors democratically informs us we will not be having the anti-pasta as it is nothing knee-trembling. So we opt for plates of bruschetta. They are served personally by Capo who maintains a stoic silence in an air of frostiness at odds with the general atmosphere of pervading revelry.
The bruschetta are hot, freshly topped and lovely. Mozzarella and anchovy on one set. Unctuous layers of black olives, capers, tomato and basil on the other. The Meerlust Merlot is savoury and mature, although as a 19-year old it is showing some grey hairs and dank cellulite.
Unless a severe pizza-craving has accompanied you to Asta, the pasta is the business. It is freshly made from extra fine flour milled by Florentine virgins wearing silk by Dolce&Gabbana and singing Verdi.
The sauces include Mafiosa (peppers and sausage), Zozzona (sausage, onion, white wine, herbs), Amatriciana (tomato, chilli, onion, herbs), Puttanesca (tomato, capers, anchovies) and the ubiquitous Bolognese, with a classic Lasagna also on the card.
You can choose between different styles of pasta you’d like sauced, so rigatoni, linguine and spaghetti can come out depending what has been freshly made.
My Puttanesca linguine was served by Capo himself who at this stage of the evening had succeeded in edging his reptilian mouth towards the slight direction of what actually looked like a smile. Although this could have meant that a few drops of arsenic had been slipped into my plate.
But so be it, I thought as I masticated the first forkful. If I am going to go, there are worse ways of kicking the espresso machine than eating a final dish of fine Puttanesca of slutty authenticity.
The pasta’s texture was silky yet satisfyingly dense and comforting. The sauce, named after the whores of Naples, holds a commanding presence through loud, brash yet complexly natural flavours. The piercing red acid of ripe tomatoes. The sweet-sour pricks of caper. Sharp, powerful anchovies. That delightful earthy zing of black olive, just-cooked through.
It is all good, fun to eat and life-affirming. The Kanonkop Cabernet 2011 was, by the way, a wine of enormous refined elegance and respected power which not only the Puttanesca could overpower.
A couple of limoncellos and we headed out in to the Stellenbosch night with a heady sense of joy as Capo, showed us the way. He winked.