A KHAWAGA'S TALE: Little Italy in the heart of Cairo

Peter A. Carrigan
6 Min Read

The promenade is quintessentially Italian and the only place to walk the walk is Zamalek’s Marriott Hotel’s Promenade Terrace. You can do that before or after the Parma ham and gnocchi with gorgonzola cheese, washed down with imported quaffing red at the Italian Club across the river in Bulaq.

Located on the July 26th corridor, a LE 10 charge for non-members garners you access to a leafy courtyard and an Italian restaurant complete with the genre’s ubiquitous chequered red and white table clothes. The obligatory Chianti bottle covered with the wax from a thousand and one nights stands on each of the large tables set up for groups and families, just like your local cheap and cheerful Italian restaurant in North London, Sydney’s Balmain or Manhattan’s Little Italy.

The Nile acts as an economic dividing line. As you leave the former Khedive’s palace and its terrace in Zamalek and cross over to Napoleon’s river port of Bulaq, you pass a Mamluk Mosque, alternate ahwas and baladi clothes shops, there are derelict Ottoman apartments and, surprisingly, a new fluorescent green post office. Your taxi dodges men in galabeyas and ‘shrouded’ women for less than a kilometer before the Italian Club looms, an imposing colonial building newly painted in an off-Tuscan red.

In true Italian style, entrance for children is free and with the outside space it is very child friendly. You are greeted by Magy Sophoclis, a charming, but discreet Maitre d’, who knows his trade after 10 years in Manhattan and the menu comes by way of a chat with your waiter.

One of my party, 9-year-old-vegetarian Charley Jenkinson, devoured first the Italian salami, then the Parma ham, exclaiming, “I am in heaven, this ham is mouth-watering.

I, too, could echo Charley’s cry, as the cork was pulled on the LE 115 bottle of Italian red wine and plates of prosciutto, capriccio, calamari and mushroom salad arrived, along with garlic bread – and the conversation flowed. Good-natured and casually dressed patrons filed in, and a cosy din had descended in the cool ventilated room by 9 pm.

Apart from the restaurant, the Club runs various social activities and is a focal point for the community, as it will be in a few weeks when AC Milan play Liverpool in the final of the European Cup. For anyone wanting to party Italian style, this will be the place to be.

Like the British expatriate clubs in Cairo, which will also be packed to cheer on Liverpool in the final, the Italian Club owes its success to dedicated volunteers and patrons such as Georgio Elias of Pirrelli Tyre fame and the Club’s chairman, Pietra Bajocchi, who is a well known Cairo jeweller.

Bajocchi said that an Italian architect designed the building as a school at the turn of the century, and it still houses the Italian School today. From 1940 to 1945 the building was used by the British to intern 8,500 Italian civilians, as they chased the Italian army across North Africa.

Following the antipasti, waiters descended on our table with plates of fettuccini, spaghetti with calamari and shrimp and bowls of spicy Penne Arabiatta. Pizza of any variety is available of course, and the table next to ours devoured their’s, washed down with frothy mugs of beer.

I have been to a number of birthday parties and celebrations at the Italian Club. Its easy going atmosphere makes it perfect for groups and its cheap tasty food is as yummy as any trattoria this side of Naples. The outside seating will return in a week or so, when finishing touches to the Club’s refurbishment are completed.

Much of the art in Italian food is in its divine ability to increase your appetite as your meal progresses, because following the pasta course is the main course of fish and veal. This course is not mandatory, however, because you must consider the dessert, coffee and digestive, which is all made easy for you because you are not constrained by a menu and the waiters are the professionals anyway. They know best.

The Italians have always been known for design and taste, which in Egypt is best epitomized by the Italian War Memorial at El Alamein. It’s well worth a visit if you haven’t already been. Also not to be missed on the North Coast is the impressive array of haute couture Italian military uniforms on show at the museum. Next to a few old British khaki and grey Afrika Corps outfits are at least a dozen immaculate rigs, with feathers, shinny buttons and medals.

I got engaged on a Florentine roof top overlooking the Tuscan hills, and like everything the Italians serve up, it’s too tasty to say no.

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