Two weeks since its opening and people can’t seem to stop talking about Aperitivo, Bodega’s latest offering to Cairo. It’s a reinterpretation of Italian dining traditions of the 1930s; and the dining room itself too is a reminder of the grand opulence that once was Cairo.
It didn’t take too long for La Bodega to become one of Cairo’s dining landmarks when it opened 10 years ago in the 1928 art deco Baehler’s Mansions building of Zamalek. Today, La Bodega is giving every restaurant in town a run for its money with its newest venture: Aperitivo, an Italian bar and restaurant inspired by the popular after work drinks and dinner culture of Italy.
Aperitivo is a longstanding Italian tradition of a pre-dinner drink intended to whet one’s appetite. Aperitivos include refreshing light alcoholic drinks, delicious cocktails, some spirits or perhaps some wine, savored at the bar with light food offerings before dinner similar in style to Spanish tapas dining.
What is so intriguing about Aperitivo is that you can easily turn dinner into an all-night outing. Aperitivos are served from 5-8 pm by waiters in white jackets and bowties, and I highly recommend a Campari soda. Sample the potato dumplings, or the stuffed green olives, but the menu is intended to change regularly so every visit might reveal a surprise.
Campari is perhaps the quintessential Aperitivo, and the restaurant pays homage to this note of inspiration with art work and other decorative motifs that harken to the days of sophistication and bravura. Mosaics of girls swimming in cocktails by Barcelona-based British mosaicist Martin Brown hang in the bathroom, inspired by 1930s Aperitivo ads. A huge mosaic mural of a Cinzano ad was prepared and imported from Vicenza, Italy. It is a sight to see.
But it was an international collaborative effort. Huge orbs made from local crystal by lighting designer Nadim Spiridon are a contemporary reinterpretation of crystal chandeliers. The overall interiors concept was brought to life by Hedayat Islam, cofounder of Eklego Designs. Marble floors and dark fireplaces styled so that the restaurant may “age well.
The restaurant is a family effort: from the interiors to the artistic collaboration between different artists and the chef who has brought something special to life.
So is it food or décor that Aperitivo has done so well? It is both.
Aperitivo is not merely a dining experience; it is a sight for eyes sore from the dreariness of the city. Young 20-somethings and older couples are enjoying Aperitivo side by side. The dress code is casually elegant and understated; the volume of noise is spirited yet never coarse.
But let’s talk food. The man in the kitchen is Chef Giorgio Bottazzi, a Milanese who recently moved to Cairo to help execute this vision. Botazzi learned to cook in true Milanese tradition, “from watching my mother and grandmother cook.
A considerably varied menu contains antipasti, pasta, risottos; fish and meat dishes with flavors typical of regional Italian cooking. And to top things off, pastas, breads and even ice creams are all hand made by Bottazzi himself.
He is keen on maintaining a traditional menu and none of that fusion cooking so rampant all over the city. “Fusion I call ‘confusion’, says Botazzi.
The menu is worth pocketing. Cocktail recipes, an explanation of Aperitivo’s food philosophy and vintage images are so endearing, it makes for a great souvenir and reminder of a great night out.
We ordered a medley of several appetizers; and one that stood out is the Insalata di pomidori alla “Caprese – Italian buffalo mozzarella with fresh tomato, olive oil and basil topped with thick succulent slices of mozzarella (LE 64). It is available only if the weekly shipment has arrived fresh from Italy, despite it being a ubiquitous menu option.
Their beef carpaccio (LE 55) was also good but I favored the Insalata mista di mare, a medley of shrimp, scallops, mussels, calamari, octopus tossed in an olive oil and lemon dressing with a touch of garlic (LE 80). It was refreshing and clean in taste.
It was the Cappresante con Spinaci, Zafferando e Barbabietola Croccante saffron -seared scallops served over sautéed spinach and topped with crispy beetroot sticks (LE 67) – that was perhaps the most novel and a perfect winter dish thanks to its bed of pungent spinach. The scallops were a tad undercooked but nevertheless enjoyable.
A sampling of Botazzi’s pasta and risotto was necessary before our main meals. The Pappardelle al Tartufo Nero – handmade pasta sheets in a light cream sauce topped with black truffles (LE 85) was everything one would imagine authentic Italian cuisine to be.
Both flavor and texture were sublime; creamy and flavorful yet easy for the palette to navigate. As part of the restaurant’s drive in acquiring the best locally grown produce, they’re also intent on importing both black and, perhaps soon, white truffles from Italy.
Italian cuisine has influenced a number of Egyptian dishes, and the Risotto al Nero di Sepia con Gamberoni, black risotto with fresh shrimps (LE 82) tasted like a much perfected Alexandrian fish and rice dish. Perhaps that is why Aperitivo has been an overnight success: because it is a reminder of our past, the menu references our grandmother’s kitchens but to be fair (sorry Grandma), it is food at its best.
For our main dishes I ordered the Zuppe di Pesce alla Ligure, Italian style fish and shell fish stew served with freshly made croutons (LE 115) and my dinner date had the Costolette d’Agnello alla Genovese, Australian rack of lamb sautéed with pine nuts, olives, onions and artichokes accompanied by roasted potatoes (LE 135).
My stew was a very light and flavorful broth; the croutons perhaps a little dry. Considering that one has been eating and drinking for two hours already, I was in need of a light dish and it served me perfectly. The lamb had been fried in generous amounts of butter, dissolving softly and quickly in one’s mouth.
Dessert was the ultimate finale. So as to “challenge the chef, my date ordered the tiramisu (LE 30) whereas I had the Sorbetto al Campari (LE 40). Both came beautifully presented, and so tasty that silence overtook us for a while as we savored our desserts.
Looking up, a huge art nouveau mirror dominates the main dining room. Custom made by artist Janan Shihaded for the restaurant, the raw look of the metal and the curlicues of flower stems captures it all: the grandeur that once was that Aperitivo is surely bringing back.
Aperitivo157, 26th of July St., Zamalek, CairoTel: 2730 0543 or 010-5232-928