Mario’s Revisited: Love, famiglia and tortionata
Mario’s years and experiences permeate the restaurant. You can almost hear the clatter of dinner services from the past decades and the conversations of all the people who scrawled graffiti on the walls. It’s no stretch to imagine that Mario is still there, silently keeping an eye.
Pina Marzagalli was there, in the restaurant and out of my sight, when I was a teenage truant, sauntering past Mario’s ristorante in Green Point, dipping into the Pick n Pay bag to break off another piece of the smoked snoek I’d bought before walking to a friend’s house to play Carlos Santana and Cat Stevens records. The awnings were green in those days; they’re burgundy now. Main Road, Green Point, was quiet then; now it has a buzz more like Long Street at night.
My mom and I couldn’t afford to go in back in the early Seventies, so it was only in the late Eighties that I got to see the graffiti on the walls and pillar, even then. It surprises me that it took me so long, because I’d always wondered about it. By the time I did go in, Mario had died (in 1986, Pina tells me now). Time and people usually change everything, but some of that graffiti has survived all that time, even a fire that caused massive damage but which the Marzagalli family took as a challenge to conquer and rise once more. Even some of the graffiti survived. “Mario is the best,” scrawled Jenny up near the ceiling, somewhere in the early Seventies but undated. Somebody signed off as “The Fifth Moon” in March 1975, and “Sergio” was there in April 1979. But graffiti is an ever-changing medium: even this year somebody has penned something over a message from the Eighties.
On a far wall today is a gallery of old newspaper cuttings, including one from March 1997 by my late Argus Tonight colleague Garth Verdal, in which he described her as “a beautiful woman with a certain mature voluptuousness”. Indeed. For Me, Pina has always brought the mature Ingrid Bergman to mind. She has told me before of how hard it was to keep going when Mario died. They had started out at a little hotel in Lodi, Lombardy, when Pina was 20 and Mario 39. He had come to Cape Town in 1967, Pina in 1971, with no clue of the decades to follow for this staunch survivor of the fickle Cape restaurant scene. Everything in its vicinity has changed, even the stadium across the road, but Mario’s and Pina remain, as do her children Marilena and Marco. Marilena is now the cook, a warm and robust character with a delicious wit. The smiling Marco flits about keeping punters happy.
This time it was to be a special family visit and my three-year-old GrandBoy’s first time in a proper Italian restaurant, and boy did he acquit himself with aplomb. First, when we introduced him to the venerable Pina, now very much the Nonna of the place, he thought she was the waitress. He turned to her, his hands in the shape of a very large portion of something, and said, “I want ice cream.” She was utterly charming and duly (later on, after he’d eaten his actual supper) arrived with a (large) bowl of ice cream which he finished by first sticking his entire face in it, then upturning the bowl so that we couldn’t see his head at all. A chip off the old grandblock although I do use a spoon these days.
Mario’s has always been unapologetically Italian. The wine list is the “lista dei vini”, the starters and mains “primi” and “secondi”. And the specials that have always been a part of the Mario’s experience are still there. The family nature of the business is deeply embedded and the personalities of the individuals in this famiglia are a part of the fabric. When Marilena rolls her eyes because Nonna Pina is insisting on taking orders herself even though they do have staff, it’s not unkind, it’s just a real family having another day doing what they do; it’s a part of the story of a family sharing their food and lives with the community. We’re part of them, they’re part of us.
Mario’s is hearty and real, its years and experiences permeate the walls. You can almost hear the clatter of dinner services from the past decades and the conversations of all the people who scrawled all that graffiti at one time or another; they’re still a part of the story. Their ghosts are intermingling with us, and it’s no stretch to imagine that Mario is still there, silently keeping an eye. Look out the window. There’s me walking past at 15, slouching and munching; there we are in 1997, coming in for dinner with Rebba in tow, only 12 and long accustomed to nights at Mario’s and ordering pasta for herself. And here she is now, her parents now older, her husband Neal alongside her, and there’s my GrandBoy, and we’re all wondering: how many times will he come here? This is a lad, only three months past his third birthday, who said to his parents the other morning: “I love restaurants! Let’s go to a restaurant and eat amazing food! And bread!”
Imagine if the typical Cape Town restaurateur got hold of this place. It would be gutted, its innards remade, the food reimagined, the menu thrown out and replaced with made-up dishes with pretentious names and descriptions. I’d walk in, burst into tears, and say “but I want Pina’s carbonara, I want her trippa alla Milanese, where’s her osso buco, her veal marsala, her oxtail? I’d need to see her bustling around, 50 years and more after she and Mario first opened the place, I need her to be there in her apron and greeting everyone at every table.
But this was to be a special night among special nights. A night crowned, no less, with Pina’s tortionata, and no, you’re not going to find that on any ordinary night, that’s special, very special. Pina first made it for me one Friday evening in the late Nineties. “Tony, I ’ave something special for you.” I can picture where we were sitting. Oh my. This is her tortionata, the famous crunchy, luscious almond cake from their old home town of Lodi, one bite of which would take her and Mario back to the place they left and the lives they moved away from to find the southern sun and a new life. And Pina had made it for me.
And on a Friday night this month, here’s Marilena at our family table telling me, “Mom has made something special for you. Leave space for dessert.”
But that’s not all that was special. “Mom” has also got some very particular things in to make this a memorable night for my family. There are brains, says Marilena, and there are sweetbreads. Marilena now cooks herself in the Mario’s kitchen, and brought the successive dishes of both brains and sweetbreads (pancreas) to the table herself. (How could I not order both, Pina having gone to all that trouble?) Yes, yes, you’re most likely as squeamish as nearly everybody else about these things, but everyone at the table had a taste of both, because when somebody has treated you in this way, you honour it. You quell your misgivings. So Neal tasted both and preferred the sweetbreads. Rebs tasted both and loved them, remarking that it’s the knowledge of what you’re eating that is generally the problem; that if you didn’t know what it was you’d just think: delicious.
Later I discover that Pina has put duck (the Italian way) on the menu as well, remembering that I have always loved the dish. Yes, we do know the French dish of duck with orange, but Tuscany’s anatra all’arancia is older, dating to the 15th century. The duck meat is succulent and so delicious, and the orange sauce is a perfect balance of sweet and tart.
My heart bursts with joy at this recent memory, that Pina would go to all this trouble for me and for my family, and that the GrandBoy’s first experience of Mario’s was blessed not only with duck cooked in the ancient way of Toscana but made with Italian hands and served with Italian love. Seeing him bite, messily, into bits of the tortionata later and his face light up at the taste had me quite overcome.
That Pina served her tortionata with marsala from Sicily, opening a bottle especially, was a clincher, if any were needed, for the GrandBoy’s dad, who had, like him, not been to Mario’s before. The family pledged even before we left for the drive home that they would be back; that Mario’s will be a part of the new generation’s life, because Mario’s is and always was all about famiglia, and nothing is more important in life than sharing life, sharing food and passing bowls of Italian love around the table. DM/TGIFood
Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.
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