THE ITALIAN WAY
Piadina, porcini mushrooms and famiglia at Lello’s Deli
Famiglia, community and good fresh ingredients are the secret of the Italian way of eating. At Lello’s by Scarpetta, the third generation of the Turilli family in Cape Town brings those traditions into contemporary focus, with welcoming warmth and fabulous fresh flavours.
There’s a buzz of activity when we arrive at Lello’s deli at the top of De Waterkant – a voluble group of Italians is discussing the bread, Chiara Turilli is behind the counter assembling the piadina flatbreads that are one of their specialities and suddenly in demand from a stream of late lunchers, while her father Ricky, the exuberant “Big Boss” of Scarpetta restaurant, is welcoming people, taking part in several conversations at once, then testing out filling combinations to sandwich in the fresh focaccia.
Chiara had thought that mid-afternoon would be a quiet time for us to chat, but for now I observe the busy deli. It has that connected feel I loved during my years of working in Italy in the Nineties – creating gourmet picnics for my walking holiday clients meant visiting at least three small family-run shops, all of them brimming with conversations about food – the forno for bread still hot from the ovens, the alimentari for cheeses and cold meats, the frutta e verdura for seasonal fruits, vegetables, herbs and salads. All the locals in the small towns of Tuscany and Umbria that we visited shopped daily. Everyone was opinionated about how thickly they wanted their meat sliced, what ripeness of fruit they wanted and whether it was nostrano, grown in their own region. Local and artisanal never needed to become a trend in Italy, always taken for granted as the way that life should be.
Chiara tells me in a free moment, “We had an Italian nonna in here the other day, a friend of my dad’s, who had a restaurant around the corner here many years ago. She was the first lady we cut meat for and wanted it cut very thin. She said ‘I feel like I’m back home’. And all the Italians who come here feel at home. Me and my brother, we’re third generation, we are South African and Italian. We want to support the community, my grandfather’s Italian heritage, his Italian blood, his friends. We just want people to feel welcome, to come in and ask us what to make for dinner.”
And this the neighbourhood was already doing just one week after Lello’s opened at the beginning of November. They’re taking home the ready to heat meals prepared at Scarpetta, perhaps a fresh burrata mozzarella cheese from Puglia Cheese, some dessert cannoli with ricotta filling fragrant with lemon zest ready to pipe into the centres. With Chiara helping you decide the menu, you can have a feast ready in minutes.
In a brief lull between customers, I ask what is the most important thing that makes Italian food Italian. “Fresh ingredients,” says Ricky decisively. Chiara takes up the thread, “The thing about Italian food is that there’s so much history that has come through the generations. My family always shares recipes, my dad says what is the point of going with it to the grave. We share our love and passion for food, and you can see we’ve got a lot of that!”
One speciality at Lello’s is piadina – an Italian type of flatbread originally from the Romagna region of Italy. “It’s one of the oldest sandwiches in the world,” says Chiara. “We’ve perfected them over the last few weeks, we make them ourselves using only artisanal ingredients, extra virgin olive oil. That’s the Italian way of life, everything simple but the best of the best.”
She makes us one each with different fillings, dotting the round piadina liberally with chunks of soft fresh cheese, salame Milano in one, fresh basil leaves in the other, then folding it into a quarter circle and heating it in the sandwich press. We take it out onto the front stoep to sample, the cheese melting and heavenly with simple accents of flavour from the basil or salami.
Chiara’s background is as a food stylist. She started out assisting big names in the food publishing industry such as Abigail Donnelly and Justine Drake, and worked her way up – until recently she was running the food department for Highbury Media, her recipes and dishes are still appearing on the cover of Food & Home among others. “I was in corporate for five years, then I thought I’m getting out, I want to start something with my family.”
The whole Turilli family working together isn’t a new idea. They are all involved in Scarpetta, Ricky’s down to earth Italian restaurant in Roodebloem Road, which they opened in 2019 when Ricky decided that retirement wasn’t for him. He’s chef, front of house, a whirlwind of energy greeting the crowd of regulars that quickly become part of the Scarpetta famiglia. Chiara manages social media and styles dishes for her brother Danilo to photograph – he’s a fashion photographer – talk about having all the skills you need in the family. And Melissa, their mother – she and Danilo are the quiet ones amid the ocean of Italian exuberance, he says – she is the force behind the gorgeous desserts both at Scarpetta and Lello’s, making them in the evenings after her work in a hospital sleep clinic.
We’d rated Melissa’s tiramisu among our best ever when we tasted it at Scarpetta a few weeks earlier. “I’ve had 30 years experience in making that tiramisu!” she says. “I’m Italian by proxy, I married an Italian, my children are Italian. Ricky’s mum taught me quite a bit and then we travelled to Italy and learned more. The mascarpone is so important. Everything has to be just right. I refuse to make it when we don’t have the right cheese.” The mascarpone she uses comes either from Puglia Cheese or from another local artisan maker also with an Italian background.
While the rest of the family are busy serving customers and chatting to the suppliers that drop in casually with their produce and stay to taste a bite of focaccia and cheese, Meliissa tells me more about Lello, short for Rafaello, for whom the deli is named. He came with his brother to Cape Town from the town of Rieti outside Rome just after the Second World War. I asked if he was also a chef.
“Ricky’s father was actually a mechanic, but he always loved cooking,” Melissa says. “He had a little garage in Woodstock and every Friday afternoon all the Italian consulate used to come there and sit there in their suits at a table in the garage having a lunch which he’d cooked for all of them. When he closed the garage he started working in our restaurants and he thrived.” She shows me another dessert in the fridge. “That zuccotto is from Florence, shaped like the cathedral dome. He and I, we used to sit and practise to get it perfect, pooling our ideas, and it just evolved.”
Ricky reappears jokingly exclaiming, “this is a nightmare, people keep on buying, we have to restock all the time!” On a more serious note he tells me about part of the inspiration for the deli – the fridges are stocked with a wide selection of ready to heat meals, his classic dishes from Scarpetta. He developed the format for these during previous lockdowns for convenient deliveries and takeaways – ossobuco, beef lasagne, tortellini calabrese, spinach and ricotta cannelloni, eggplant parmigiana. “The time is right. People are looking to have fun, people are looking for new experiences, but after cooking for themselves all through lockdown they don’t want to cook.” Ricky says. “Scarpetta doesn’t work from 8 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon so we have an asset sitting idle, and the capacity to stock the deli. We’ve supplied supermarkets, but then it became too much for me to supply them. This is a different story, we’re doing what we want to, I’m gob-smacked by how well it’s been received already.”
Danilo was the one who spotted the perfect space, which used to be a Pilates studio, when stopping off for coffee next door at Ground Art Café, owned by friends of theirs. He also brought the precision of eye from his photography and design background to the interior and the logo, “I literally locked myself in here for a month. It took me three days to do the tiling by hand – I had a laser level and checked the lines, because I knew that every day I walked in here, if it was skew it would drive me mad!” He grew up working in his father’s restaurants, and you can’t be in the Turilli family without having an opinion about food, “My dad and my sister are the ones who are beyond obsessed, but I cook at home, and I’ve always loved the deli side of street food.”
Ricky has been trying out different filling combinations with the focaccia – this isn’t the same focaccia he bakes for the restaurant at Scarpetta. He can’t make enough for the deli too, but he’s been working with Francois at the Bread Bar in Makers Landing to develop a focaccia that has the traditional Italian qualities they’re looking for. “Now it’s fabulous,” says Chiara. “Italians have been in and loved it. That’s what’s exciting, working together with our suppliers.” Ricky offers us sections of the two different focaccia sandwiches he’s made. “This is the epitome of our family,” laughs Chiara, “we’re doing a focaccia tasting. This is what happens in the daily life of the Turilli’s, there’s a lot of arguments about food. We chat, we reminisce, we find the best of the best. You’ve got to taste and taste and try and evolve.”
The focaccia is dense with just enough chew, no excess salt and garlic on top, the flavours of the fillings shine through, creamy fresh cheese and salami, simple, delicious.
I ask Chiara how traditional they are as third generation Italians in Cape Town, quoting the line from Stanley Tucci’s film Big Night when Primo the chef tells customers who are trying to order spaghetti and meatballs, “Sometimes the spaghetti likes to be alone!”
Chiara laughs, “Oh don’t get me started on that! Meatballs is a dish, and spaghetti is a dish, you don’t have it together! We are traditionalists. Every single item in store, you know you’re getting good quality because we have argued and fought about every single product – it’s got to go through the vetting of the family. Is Dad happy, are Mom and my brother happy? My boyfriend grew up on a citrus farm so he had to taste the juices, all of that is why we have such good products.”
She shows me the specialist citrus products from Bergsoom, a family farm in Citrusdal, where they grow everything citrus, from bergamot oranges to Seville oranges, sweet sweet Mor mandarins, Cape naartjies, Sicilian Tarocco blood oranges, for which they travelled to Sicily to get the right seed. Besides the fresh fruits on display are a series of freshly squeezed juices including a rich ruby red blood orange juice, and a bergamot marmalade. Chiara’s excitement about each discovery is infectious, “I’m going for the artisanal people, I want people who are starting out, I want the community, we’ve got all the Italians, people I went to school with, my grandfather’s friends.” The shelves and fridges are a voyage of discovery and Chiara shares the stories with every client, she says she almost lost her voice on the second day of opening! There’s honey from her lady beekeeper, butter from Broster, a small-scale maker in Hout Bay, jams, biscuits and fresh baked goods from La Masseria, fresh zucchini/courgette flowers ready for stuffing and frying, purple artichokes, porcini mushrooms currently from KZN but later in the month they’ll be foraged locally along with pine rings.
Lello’s may have only been open a week but they feel like an established part of the neighbourhood already. “Giovanni’s down the road, my dad and he are besties, they used to go on food trips together overseas, to buy salami etc, and his daughter makes my ice cream here. It’s a community. If we don’t have something we send people to Giovanni’s. Our generation, we want to bring back that feeling of coming to our house, our casa, just enjoy.” DM/TGIFood
Lello’s Deli, 106 Vos Street, De Waterkant, Cape Town. See Facebook @lellosdeli
The author supports Ladles of Love, currently feeding 30,000 people a day in the Western Cape. See Ladles of Love