An Italian dynamo’s dynamic restaurant year

An Italian dynamo’s dynamic restaurant year
The ravioli which made 95 famous. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

Chef and restaurant owner Giorgio Nava is an astute businessman. At the beginning of lockdown in March 2020, he had six restaurants, including his first and most famous, 95 on Keerom. Closing it permanently wasn’t a decision he took lightly, but it’s far from the end of the road.

It’s not an overstatement to say 95 on Keerom was an institution in the Cape Town restaurant industry. Milanese chef Giorgo Nava relocated to Cape Town in 1999 and opened it the following year. The name was the address, off the bustle of Long Street but in the heart of the legal district.

I have many fond memories. Something that always impressed me was that Nava would come out of the kitchen at some point during the dinner service, and visit each table to greet his customers – first-timers, veterans and friends alike. This personal touch and interaction is priceless when it comes to making every single person feel special. 

Although I didn’t dine there as much as I would have liked, in retrospect, I did always get seated at the same table and Nava usually waved away the menu and served me what he wanted me to eat. This was a happy combination of his best dishes and those that became my favourites: the butternut and ricotta ravioli with sage butter and Parmesan tops that list, closely followed by the ravioli filled with slow cooked Karoo lamb shoulder, and the same sage butter and parmesan… this became my staple at Carne SA, the carnivore heaven directly across Keerom Street at number 70.

The proximity allowed Nava to still greet every guest every night, dashing back and forth, but he didn’t stop there; Carne on Kloof in Tamboerskloof came along, as did 95 at Parks in Constantia and 95 at Morgenster in the Helderberg. Wait, did I mention he still cooked in the kitchen while maintaining his front of house presence? 

Giorgio Nava has always made a point of greeting every one of his guests. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

When Nava announced on his social media in October 2020 that he was closing 95 on Keerom for good, the reaction from the public was one of shock. “For me as well,” he said. The reason behind it was simple, really: it was the most expensive to run.

“Even though I’m the owner of the building so I don’t have to pay much rent, it was a 160-seater, and it had lost some of its appeal and was not as busy before lockdown,” he said. Closure wasn’t on the map then, said Nava, but the restaurant was struggling and suffering. “At a certain point you have to cut it off and move on. Maybe in two years I’ll reopen it,” he shrugged. 

For now, there is a “To Let” sign outside but prospective tenants are offering half of what Nava is asking so he’s leaving things as they are for now, and keeping up the rates and taxes payments. “It was 20 years old, yes it was an institution, but not enough customers… they all say shame, shame, but when last were you there? I don’t blame them if they choose to go somewhere else but if you don’t support, this is what happens.”

We were having lunch at 95 at Parks, sharing a bottle of Nava’s own Prosecco and a fried pizza, which was a life-changing experience.

Nava had bottled Prosecco under his own label before, but he wanted to have more input as to what went into the bottle (he’s a perfectionist) so off he went to Italy in 2019 to create his wine. What with all the pandemic business, the new Prosecco finally arrived in October 2020, and he said he thinks it’s “quite good”. Prosecco is always fantastic on a sunny day, he said. “You can drink your own bottle by yourself. It’s so light, delicate, and fresh with no acidity. Our bubbly here is very good but sometimes the acidity is a bit much.”

95’s exclusive Prosecco is a light and fresh tipple for a sunny afternoon. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

No argument from me. It’s on the wine list in the restaurants of course, but it can also be bought online.

So about this fried pizza. It’s called Pizza Montanara on the menu and is one of the most delicious things I have put in my mouth. Yes, I said that.

“It’s very popular in Italy,” explained Nava. “It’s the same dough we normally use but proven much longer to make it light and fluffy. Then you take the dough like you prepare a normal pizza but you don’t put anything on top. It goes into the fryer where it blows up like a bubble. Take it out, dry it on paper, put your tomato and mozzarella and then it goes into the pizza oven which dries all the oil.”

The result is a super-crispy and crunchy air-filled crust and the part that so many people leave on the plate becomes the best bit. The topping is classic – tomato, fior di latte mozzarella, basil and olive oil. “We don’t start to play with banana and pineapple and stuff,” said Nava. I laughed; the Nava I know is extremely outspoken. What are his feelings about pineapple on pizza, I asked (something which has divided the world) tentatively? “It’s not supposed to be there,” he answered simply and quietly. Then we laughed together about how we grow wiser, calmer and politer as we get older.

Pizza Montanara is a classic with tomato, mozzarella and basil – no pineapple. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

Maybe so, but Nava still has some very firm opinions on certain matters, and certainly food, and is not afraid to voice them. We’ve had many meals together over the years, and he has always been highly critical. Nava demands the best, from his own kitchen as well as those belonging to others.

Carne SA is temporarily closed – Nava is biding his time until international visitors return, which are his main clientele – and 95 at Morgenster was let go on account of a proposed rent increase. Botanicum will open there next week. Carne on Kloof is open, and 95 at Parks is open for lunch and dinner Fridays to Sundays. The Land Bank in Queen Victoria Street is a function and event venue, and also where Nava’s biggest kitchen is. This kitchen will soon be cooking again when Caffe Milano (which was the predecessor of Carne on Kloof) opens in December 2020. It’s part of the bigger picture of Liam Tomlin’s Local At Heritage Square project. “There will be beer, organic wine, meat, cheese, one for this, one for that – and Liam’s own Lebanese restaurant upstairs,” said Nava. The new Caffe Milano will be on your left as you enter the building but before you get into the market itself.

It will be, in its least complicated description, a coffee shop, focused mainly on takeaways other than four or six small tables in the corridor. The space is tiny, so there’s literally no room for much more. There will be good Italian coffee – Mauro. “I don’t drink coffee but I sell it,” smiled Nava when I pointed out (not for the first time) how “non” Italian he is: he doesn’t do coffee, garlic or soccer (he corrected me when I said “football”, the horror!). “That’s why I had to leave Italy. They send me to Africa,” he joked.

The famous ravioli again. (Photo: Bianca Coleman)

It’s been a while since Nava had a place like this so he’s been researching the pastry business, trying croissants from all over Cape Town. “Croissant is an important thing for me with coffee in the morning so I’ve been to all the places selling them and they are very bad, all of them,” he lamented.

This means Nava’s – and his pastry chef Rughshana Wolhuter – will absolutely have to be the best. From our conversation I can tell his croissants will not be so flaky that they crumble into a mess all over your bosom and lap. With the coffee, you’ll be able to get breads, baguettes, four types of (whole) cakes to take home, bomboloni (a heavenly little fried and filled doughnut), pasteis de nata (memory serves well that the ones from the original Caffe Milano were spectacularly good and if you have any idea how much I forget but can remember this, then you’ll understand), the fried pizza folded calzone-style and wrapped in greaseproof paper to eat on the go, and cannoncini. “It’s like cannoli but smaller, a fantastic pastry you eat and eat, you can’t stop,” said Nava. 

More good news is that Nava has created a range of frozen pastas – all those favourite ravioli that made him famous – which will soon be available in supermarkets, and at Caffe Milano.

Giorgio Nava’s pasta will soon be available at retailers for you to recreate that 95 magic at home. (Photo: Supplied)

At this point I am giving serious thought to just giving up on trying to maintain a semblance of a figure and live the rest of my life like a gruesome TLC documentary and let the firemen come get me when I die. DM/TGIFood


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