Man, wrote the great novelist and raconteur Jim Harrison, was not created to eat small portions. That’s why Italian eateries are always close to my soft-spot. Yes, the ubiquitous Italian restaurant may vary in quality, consistency, service and range of offering. But you ain’t going to leave any of them hungry.
A Tavola in Claremont prescribes to this principle with relish, and has another thing going for it, namely being among the top three Cape Town joints in the offering of quality Italian fare. The others are Mario’s and Magica Roma.
A Tavola’s popularity is underscored by it being packed to the rafters daily, offering comforting proof that not all those living in the Southern Suburbs have allowed the spell of Tim Noakes to usurp their wish to live well by enjoying good food, warmed and nourished by carbohydrates.
The welcome to A Tavola is not the affected Italian kind, namely some moustached guy with greased hair hollering “bellissimo!”, “chow!”, “pizza marinara!” or whatever lingo they feel like using to inspire authenticity. The staff are South African, professional without longings to linger or indulge in small-talk.
An open kitchen is busy and clean, the walls adorned with photographs of beautiful people such as James Dean and Sophia Loren gorging on long, thick tentacles of pasta and cocking a finger at anything looking or sounding like banting.
The menu’s dishes are titled in Italian, the descriptions doing enough to inform you the place does seasonal, creativity and tradition in one tempting mix.
Starters – antipasti for the Italo-philes – range from the usual platter of cold Italian meats like salami, mortadella and prosciutto; bruschetta topped with tomato and garlic and lashed in olive oil; mussels and carpaccio, and that aubergine-cheesy- Melanzane-thing.
The list of mains courses are filled with pastas including toppings of marinara and broccoli and ragu, and on the meat and fish sides there is fish with lentils and salse verde, veal with lemon or mushroom and sliced rump on pasta. Chicken or veal saltimbocca, too.
I was there recently with Cuban cigar importer Signora Carlita Bianco for a business meeting, and keeping up with her negotiating skills always requires a hectic hit of protein. We therefore looked at the specials menu and decided on vitello tonnato for a bit of culinary foreplay, before getting down to the heavy, filling good stuff.
Vitello tonnato, a dish of cold sliced veal topped with a silky sauce made from tuna and mayonnaise needs two things to elevate it from sounding like a toasted sandwich filling: the veal has to be rare and slightly bloody, and the covering sauce needs a kick of anchovy and capers.
A Tavola does it perfectly, the wafer-thin slices of baby cow leaking pink, watery blood. The tuna topping is the consistency of mother’s milk with the mild flavour of fish combining deliciously with well-made mayonnaise. And yes, enough capers and anchovy to please a puttana in Naples ensured excitement.
For mains, the Signora had a linguine pescatore, which arrived as if Don Corleone had instructed the chef how to make it by pointing a gun to the cook’s head. No drowning of prawn, mussels and calamari in a pool of tomato sauce before heaping it on the pasta. The seafood was accurately cooked to perfection before flavoured with chilli, garlic and olive oil and arranged on a layer of freshly made linguine.
My need for flesh not being sated by the dead calf, I had trippa for a main course. Here, strips of cow stomach are simmered in a tomato and parsley and onion sauce until tender to the bite. It is one of the classic Italian dishes, the ribbons of soft, earthy innards providing sustenance of the moving and life-affirming kind.
The tripe came on a bed of polenta, buttered and tasty, and a perfect ying to the offal’s yang.
Signora allowed me a roll of linguine, this so perfect I wondered how a nation that makes such faulty cars and plays lawless football can get something so very right.
Another reason for visiting A Tavola is the approach to wine. Local and Italian, smaller batched labels and the wine-list changing according to availability. David Sadie. Newton Johnson. Carl Everson. Keermont….that kind of place. To impress the Signora Donna, however, I chose to take a Vergelegen Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 which did the trick, even matching her linguine with aplomb.
Dessert was beautiful hazelnut ice-cream, plus perfect espresso and a shot of great grappa.
You are what you eat, and I be man.
- Emile Joubert