TGIFOOD

CIAO BELLA

A pavement window on who’s cooking Jozi, Italian style

A pavement window on who’s cooking Jozi, Italian style
Clico’s owner, Jeanette Swegman, welcoming Dario de Angeli. (Photo: Supplied)

We think of Italian food-makers as rigid and bound to an original location, but these chefs I’m looking at are the vital opposites, creating different, excellent food, way out of the Italian scatola. Talking of which, where do we find Dario de Angeli today?

Is there something about coming from an Italian family? Something that pushes you past your own familiar limits, even food limits? I can think of four such Italian chefs quite quickly, three of them in Jozi. Take Dario de Angeli. Yes, what’s he doing? One of Jozi’s best and most awarded chefs-with-character. No one forgets Dario de Angeli after their first encounter but many diners would love to reacquaint themselves, wondering where he is these days. He’s been a topic of conversation for more than a couple of years. At Clico? Since when?

Remember his Cube? In Parktown North. It was one of those places that had a few hands in changing fine dining in Jozi. Remember Yum? His place in Greenside. Even earlier. A had-to-know and mighty successful, in two successive locations in the same street. Come to think of it, he did something like that with Cube too.

I’ve cornered him at the same table at Clico. All that’s changed is a beard and the new surroundings. What hasn’t changed is the way that he changes, with the times or usually just before them, his great interest in new foods and hospitality directions.

“I’ve been happily playing golf for a few years. But Clico’s dragged me back into the industry.” He widens his eyes dramatically. He’s been here just a few months. Dario is the all-or-nothing sort of restaurateur. He’s not only working the restaurant here but reworking every part of this little hotel that can serve food or beverages. So I’m not seated at the table with him for long. I’m galloping after Dario de Angeli, through various Clico spaces and even to the pool, across winsome outside areas.

‘People have looked in, to see what they think they can’t have… like a window of exclusivity.’ (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

“Look at that window!” He nods at a horizontal window in the wall of Clico’s pretty gorgeous restaurant patio. “From outside, people have looked in, to see what they think they can’t have. It’s been like a window of exclusivity. That window must rather show what they can eat, at any time of the day or evening. This is accessible space; spaces really. It’s not reserved for wealthy guests. It’s for all Jozi’s eaters-out. Anyone can book a table at Clico but you can also just drop in for drinks, for small meals, big meals. Look how beautiful…” and he sweeps his arm at the patio, “…now being utilised by the public.”

There are groups, some casual with laptops, some talking what looks like business and one woman in a bikini with a vague shirt over it. She must be a resident.

People using the beautiful patio, now called 400Degrees. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

It’s true. I’ve seldom thought of using Clico as a restaurant, though I’ve long known it is. Despite a succession of not inconsequential chefs, other Jozi people haven’t ever frequented and used this restaurant for itself either. It hasn’t occurred much to us, though we all know Clico as a landmark. If someone can rework this place’s further spaces, food and attitudes, it probably is de Angeli. It’s definitely likely to be different.

400Degrees? That’s quite a turnaround, I joke about the new name. Well, I think it’s funny. Dario says, evenly, “They’re degrees of heat for the pizza oven that’s about to be here on the patio.” Few people know but Dario also has, as one of his side hustles, a pizza business, the Don Pizza Co, making Neapolitan style, fermented dough pizzas. The toppings at Clico are not all trying to be Neapolitan or even strictly Italian, I see when I look at the new menu for this new space. They’re so much more to our tastes, traditionally unheard of. For instance, there’s a delicious sounding pizza with a burrata on it, sharing space on that pizza with Parma ham, truffles, rocket and parmesan. It’s what fascinates me, this not being strictly Italian at all, as we tend to expect, this pushing past expectations. 

I had some linefish with eastern flavours that led to this new menu dish of linefish and prawn tails in dashi broth, with kombu seaweed, garlic and oyster sauce. (Photo: Dario de Angeli)

For now, I’m reminding myself of his huge food talent of many aspects. When I first encountered de Angeli he was cheffing for, but not owning, a place in Orange Grove called Soho Square. The food was game-changing for those restaurant days, a bit over 30 years ago. I was already entranced by what Dario de Angeli was doing in the kitchen. He must have been 20 years old. Still, he won his first food award there. He was already producing his South Africanised top international tastes.

So it wasn’t surprising to find him later at his own restaurant, Yum. His more Italian mum had a restaurant called Oven, I think, a few doors away. Yum overflowed its space limits and Dario de Angeli moved it further along the drag. He was winning food awards there too, not that Dario worries about those things too much or ever talks about them. However, people still speak of Yum 20 years later.

Chicken chipotle and black rice on the new starter menu, with avocado,  corn and radish. (Photo: Dario de Angeli)

Others knew him best at his Cube Tasting Kitchen, the restaurant that purposely altered many eating out and dining perceptions. At Cube, the chefs stood in the variously coloured lights reflected against plain glossy walls, at a station on the floor. Cube was a coffin shaped room really, not even a cube. It could have been anything. There were generally three chefs at a time and one would come to the tables as his or her dishes came out of the kitchen and explain it all table-side. It was where I first met Darren O’Donovan, one of those chefs. He now has the superb restaurant of his own, Embarc, in Parktown North.

What grew from Cube was a bigger Est Est Alea (meaning “the die is cast”). However, the die was really cast by Covid. De Angeli doesn’t stand still long enough to get bored. When the restaurant industry stopped for Covid, he was suddenly and literally out of range, playing golf in unrestricted, out-of-reach places. He’s been to over 60 countries during his food career. “But not enough,” he says. It tells you about his not resting much on laurels or his bum.

Some pork belly with ginger I had has led to this new menu item of pork belly, bonito and kombu, pickled ginger and pistachio. (Photo: Dario de Angeli)

While we’ve been talking, I’ve been comparing some of the existing dishes available to me today (still on what he smilingly calls his Greatest Hits or Something For Everyone test menu) to a spanking new menu. It is being implemented as I write. This is much more thrilling, way more to his current food palate and what he wants for us, the welcome eating-out public at Clico.

Dario is on his feet and says he’s got to go out and see a man about a fish. Sourcing is a big thing that he’s strict about. He’d love all the ingredients to be sourced right here around Jozi and a surprising number are, but he wants any others to be even more sustainable. Everything gets used, over different kinds of meals, now possible over the spread of different areas and times of day that he manages – “even the parts of the plants”.

There’s a lovely new smoked pineapple dish on the menu but I had a quick one of fresh pineapple, fennel, star anise with lime sorbet and cardamom burfee. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

It’s no longer lunchtime but I ask a waiter if I can order something that Dario and I’ve been discussing, a cool summer pud combination of flavours. He agrees, warning me it may not be as good looking as it “normally” is. It’s a combination of fresh pineapple, fennel, star anise, lime sorbet and cardamom burfi. Heavens, it’s delicious and I see the new menu has an even further development, the pineapple smoked, with coconut panna cotta, liquorice syrup, cashew butter, butterscotch and a caramel tuile, one of four beckoning desserts. The pineapple one is also on the new five-course tasting menu, a dining option.

De Angeli’s food preoccupations at present, apart from sourcing locally, include more and more plant-based food, even though “not everyone’s ready for it”. He is. He’s been raving about the whole panoply of new ingredients that have “opened up” to him. On the new Clico restaurant menu is a starter, one of six, this one called Plant Based Deliciousness. It includes soya rounds, Brazilian hot and sour broth, veggies, crispy potato and harissa. The mains menu includes a plant-based steak. 

Dario de Angeli rails against the usual ways of doing anything. When he had his fine dining sort of restaurant with a tasting menu, you brought your own drinks without any corkage charged. It was his way of reducing the prices so that more people could access that way of eating quite casually. These days at Clico, he’s consciously working against “fine dining” classifications, proving, like many excellent chefs at this time in the world, that the best food is still the best food, without the chef jackets, the long white aprons, the formal settings and the rules. 

Dario de Angeli is one of Jozi’s chefs from Italian families, his from Trieste. Here, he’s ever changing, ever revitalising. He says his kitchen can attest to there being a touch of his Italian heritage in his fiery temper and gesticulations.

All of the three people I am thinking of have enormous talent which they use under Jozi conditions, no matter their origins. They’re here and they make differences. However local the differences, the better.

Claudia Giannoccaro is just such a chef. Her grandfather from Sondrio, Italy, brought her parents, both born in Italy too, to Africa when he was commissioned to do a sculpture in Somalia. The family then moved to Zambia and Claudia was born there. All of them have since had or have food places in South Africa. Claudia went to the States and to sea, sailing the world, met her husband en route and they opened the Salvation Café at 44 Stanley 16 years ago.

Chef Claudia Giannoccaro of the Salvation Café. (Photo: Supplied)

“My Italianness is that I have a big passion for great food. Eating good Italian food made by my father is the ultimate, but my own style of food is not so Italian, maybe because of my travelling spirit and I’ve been exposed to other foods of the world. I also prefer lighter foods with lots of different flavours.”

Salvation Café’s tables in and out are always full of lunchers and breakfasters. I met Claudia over a plate of her now rather famous Eggs Benedict, still in the days when people steamed eggs in poaching pans.

“As a real chef, she would never do that,” said a friend, who also had a restaurant. She didn’t. The eggs were exquisite, still are and so is everything she and her kitchen turn out, American, French, Thai, Japanese, always using sustainable ingredients, locally sourced.

Claudia is forever improving the Salvation Café space “for the clients”. It’s pretty perfect and she even develops ranges of granola, biscuits and sweets just because she enjoys it.

Everything is good here, I tell guests to Jozi, confidently.

Sergio Caon of Dolce Vita Bistro. (Photo: Supplied)

“I’m not a real chef, at least not by training,” insists Sergio Caon of Dolce Vita Bistro. His food needs to appeal to a wide range of Sandtonians and it can range from quiches and burgers to eastern curries. Breakfasts are more New York than his family’s Treviso, much more lavish than a mere coffee and cornetto.

The clientele is on the wealthy side, used to getting what they want. He still makes his sourdough loaves, the reasons for my having met him a decade or so ago at his former restaurant. His sourdough would feature in a wonderful panini and when he was asked to join the people who wanted to open Dolce Vita, I wasn’t surprised.

It’s a very lovely, spacious restaurant in an apartment complex called The Regent, in Sandton’s Morningside. It began in a rather more Italian fashion than now, even though today it is owned by a man whose family came from Italy’s Veneto.

What did surprise me at the opening evening event was coming across a man who had, on one of his expensive shoes, the word Dolce and, on the other, Gabbana. I hasten to say it was not Sergio.

He insists, despite his background, on meticulously making and presenting an enormous range of fabulous foods, for any of Morningside’s, Jozi’s and visiting people, from early mornings to late afternoons. He’s just one of these wonderful people, a dedicated, and also hilariously funny, host of a restaurateur. DM/TGIFood

Clico Restaurant and 400Degrees at the Clico Boutique Hotel, 27 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank | 011 252 3300

Salvation Café, 44 Stanley, Milpark | 011 482 7795

Bistro Dolce Vita, inside the Regent, 21 West Rd South, Morningside   010 109 3107

The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi feeding schemes with food “rescued” from the food chain. Please support them here.

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