ITALIAN IN JOZI

How David Higgs’ Saint matches up to the city’s traditional joints

By Food Mole 8 February 2019

Tagliatelle Prawns at David Higgs' Saint.

There’s a tale of two cities when it comes to eating Italian in Joburg. While the more traditional neighbourhood trattorias are still doing good business (often to an older demographic), Italian food has got way more expensive and cool in a number of bright and shiny hot spots. Think Café del Sol which started the trend, Gemellis and new kid-on-the-block, David Higgs’ much hyped Saint.

Saint – which opened in August 2018 – was voted Gauteng’s Best Italian-Inspired Eatery in the 2018 Eat Out Mercedes-Benz Best Everyday Eateries awards, announced in November.

As an interesting aside, the award’s rules state that the top names in each category were determined by a two-step process. Star ratings given by the public from 1 September, 2017, to 31 August, 2018 were tallied. The restaurants that received a large volume of high scores from fans were then visited by Eat Out’s professional critics, who gave their own ratings. Final results were based on a 50-50 composite score from the public and the critics. It is a vagary how an Italian restaurant that had only been open a month was voted the province’s best. But I digress.

Saint certainly is zhoozsh, on-trend with its décor and with no expense saved on its visual delights. Service was also exceptional, although with the high-end wine prices I would have liked more input from a sommelier.

Traditional charred Napolitana pizza at Saint

Higgs – now a household name thanks to television’s My Kitchen Rules – has described the food as “twisted Italian”. The traditional chewy Neapolitan pizza with its raised border, charred crust and fairly sparse topping was successful as were the starters, although they are small in portion but large in price. A smoked flavour gives the Melanzane an updated feel, the mouth-sized Arancini are delicious.

The prawn tagliatelle, described as being served with coriander and bisque (didn’t see much of the last ingredient), was nice but nothing special for its hefty R265 price tag while Saint’s version of a Carbonara lacked the generosity and comfort of the more traditional versions.

Know that you’ll be looking at the ceiling as your eyes roll back in your head when you get your bill. But then it is a very pretty ceiling with its 3D projectors which can be manipulated to give off any effect including the Sistine Chapel. Your credit card may need some divine intervention at this stage.

On the other end of the scale are the more old-school eateries such as Da Graziella, Dolci Café, La Mama, Renato Trattoria and La Trinita. The food is to the point, without an emperor’s parade of competing ingredients and cheffy flourishes.

In charge in the oh-so-slightly mismatched Dolci Café in Craighall Park is Jackie Righi-Boyd who is following in her family’s culinary footsteps. Her mother is Luciana Righi of Assaggi, Tre Nonni and Amarcord fame, and who joins her daughter in the kitchen.

Tagliata at Dolci Cafe

The menu has some firm Italian favourites including a number of Luciana’s signature dishes such as her asparagus and Brie lasagne (R110) which came to life nearly 20 years ago. The homemade melt-in-the-mouth pasta layers are interspersed with just the right amount of asparagus, béchamel and Brie. There’s also cappelletti in brodo – homemade pasta parcels with a salsiccia, pork mince, Parmesan and cream cheese filling, floating in a clear veal broth as well the zucchini fritti (chips) while Vitello Tonnato (thinly sliced veal in a tuna sauce) makes for a light summer dish.

At this restaurant you would do well to leave space for dessert. Righi-Boyd, who trained at a pastry shop in Italy, provides a smörgåsbord of sweets includes cannoli (cream horns), pasticcini, lemon meringue and bigne (eclairs) as well as tiramisu and the sublime Dolce Della Nonna comprised of layers of zabaglioni, cream, amaretti biscuits, pecan nuts and dark chocolate.

Italian meat platter at Dolci Cafe

La Mama – now based in Ferndale in Johannesburg – is something of a Joburg institution. It first opened in Hillbrow nearly four decades ago before moving to Louis Botha Avenue in Bramley, then to Blairgowrie and on to its current premises in Oxford Street in Ferndale.

In charge is the delightful Mkhacani Richard Baloyi. When he began cleaning floors and washing dishes back in 1982, he had no idea that it would change his life forever. Fast-forward 37 years and the man from Limpopo is now the proud owner.

Owner Giulio Broccardo, who retired in 2012, saw something in Baloyi and started teaching him what he knew – from making the perfect dough to cooking tender fritto misto di mare and whipping up a zabaglione. Baloyi became head chef and just over a year ago bought the restaurant.

This traditional Italian trattoria became known for its home-made pastas, pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven and its signature salad with tomato, onion slices, hard-boiled egg, anchovies, lashings of Italian cheese and its secret dressing – all of which are served to this day.

Da Graziella in Edenvale is run by a Sicilian brother and sister team and offers authentic home-style Italian food. The place is cosy but when packed may feel a tad claustrophobic as tables are placed fairly close together. There’s a wide selection of affordable food with a number of pastas below R100. Popular choices are the suppli, arancini, signature Linguine Scoglio al Cartoccio (seafood linguine oven baked in foil) as well as the spaghetti Arrabiatta and spaghetti Vongole. Leave space for the tiramisu.

Owned by a mother and daughter team, the ebullient Tessa and LaLa, La Trinita oozes charm and hospitality. There’s a focus on dishes from three of Italy’s regions (Bologna, Napoli and Perugia) as well as seasonal ingredients, so diners would do well to choose from the day’s specials or one of the pizzas and pastas, all made daily on the premises. The website happily states that “our customers are not walking credit cards” so there are some well-priced options including the Margherita pizza and Pasta Napolitana at under R80. The gnocchi, in a vodka-based cream sauce, is delicious.

It’s another old faithful that has stood the test of time. Renato Trattoria has been a landmark restaurant in Emmarentia since 1987, remarkable in an often-fickle city which seeks out the trendy. The décor is unsophisticated and slightly worn but the food is hearty and comforting. There’s a tiny antipasto menu but most regulars seem to go for the simple and delicious Italian salad followed by a pasta or pizza which all cost less than R100. The limited fish and meat offerings are all SQ (from the French salon qualitaire – meaning subject to quotation or in most layman’s speak “don’t order because it’s ridiculously expensive”). In Renato’s case they aren’t too badly priced. Overall, it’s cheap and cheerful which is why people visit again and again.

Saint is gorgeous but then perfect vistas and all the mod cons don’t come cheap. Style over substance? For sure. On the other end of the scale are the Italian restaurants which are familiar, tested and old-school. And like your favourite flops or slippers, you’re likely to favour them more often than that bling splurge in your shoe cupboard. DM

  • Da Graziella. 74 Dunvegan Ave, Dunvegan, Edenvale. Telephone: 011 454 6202

  • Dolci Café. Shop 6, Lancaster Village, 28 Clarence Avenue. Craighall Park. Telephone: 010 900 2274.

  • La Mama. 90 Oxford St, Ferndale. Telephone: 011 792 7111

  • La Trinita. G1A, Kyalami Downs Shopping Centre, Kyalami Boulevard & Main Rd, Kyalami Park, Midrand. Telephone: 011 466 7949.

  • Renato Trattoria. 39 Greenhill Road, Emmarentia. Telephone: 011 646 9203

  • Saint. The Marc, Corner Rivonia & Maude St, Sandton. Telephone: 010 594 5888

One or other incarnation of Food Mole has formerly publicised Dolci Café but none of our moles has any current involvement with the restaurant.

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