Bite Me Cairo: Smooth sailing

David Blanks
6 Min Read
Foodist at work Photo by Nada Badawi
Foodist at work. (Photo by Nada Badawi)
Foodist at work
Photo by Nada Badawi

How could I have overlooked this one? According to Italian ex-patriates writing on TripAdvisor, “La Vela [Road 262, Maadi] è la classica trattoria italiana . . . serve probabilmente la miglior cucina italiana del Cairo” (La Vela is a classic Italian trattoria… serving probably the best Italian cuisine in Cairo). After my third visit in as many weeks, I looked that up when I sat down to write this review; it seemed too good to be true and I wanted to see if others felt the same.

I had heard about this hard-to-find place from a Zamalek foodie who, despite having Trattoria, Aperitivo and Tuscany in his neighbourhood, regularly cruised to Maadi for what he too told me was the best Italian food in the city—a claim that was impossible for me to ignore.

Finding it was a challenge, especially as the guy on the phone whom I asked for directions had an attitude and absolutely no sense of direction, which got my dander up but only increased my determination and further convinced me that my foodie friend was right: What could be more authentically Italian than someone giving me a hard time for wanting to patronise his establishment? This was going to be good.

Nor did the décor and ambience disappoint. Eclectic, kitschy, cozy and comfortable, it really does resemble a classic Italian trattoria, a far cry from its sleek Zamalek competitors who too often put style before substance. If you would rather see and be seen and are less interested in food, then La Vela, which means “the sail”, is not the place for you.

Our waiter was alternately brisk and brusque, nothing if not inconsistent, knowledgeable if you are patient enough to drag the information out of him—this must have been the guy who answered the phone—and had a personality that was entirely in keeping with the authentic feel of the place. All the other customers were Italian, and Italian was clearly the restaurant’s native tongue; English, second; Arabic, a distant third.

Only local wines are served, which is somewhat unfortunate, but you can bring your own bottles, and in any case I rather forgot about it when I ordered an off-menu appetiser of cheese and cold cuts and the waiter brought us without a moment’s hesitation an ample plate of scarmoza and mortadella. This you will not find in any other eatery in the city.

What I learned from my successive visits though, was that what La Vela does best is prepare down-home Italian fare. The veal scallopini with lemon sauce was perfectly cooked; the divine pesto sauce is made fresh when ordered; the traditional bronzini—whole sea bass baked in salt and served tableside, was magnifico; and the cavatelli (a small, shell-shaped pasta) with porcini mushroom sauce was so subtle, earthy and flavourful that when I tried it on my second visit I completely failed to do my job as a food writer and ordered it again on my third.

The menu is vast and includes a variety of meat, fish and chicken dishes that cannot be found elsewhere in Cairo, creative soups like artichoke and pumpkin cream, inventive focaccia, and of course a wide variety of pizzas including the biancaneve (mozzarella, walnuts and white cheese) and the pesto Genovese (mozzarella, string beans, potatoes and pesto). Plenty of options here for vegetarians. I am looking forward to trying the pizza, but clearly have a long ways to go before I get there: so far the other options have proved way too enticing.

The one major disappointment at La Vela was the tiramisu. I don’t know what they are serving—something more akin to an ice-cream cake dusted with ground espresso; but a true tiramisu it most certainly is not. When I pointed this out it was the one time the by now endearing head waiter did not take issue with one of my comments or suggestions, instead nodding rather grimly and retreating to the kitchen with my uneaten dessert.

The portions are large and the prices moderate-to-high, but the overall experience, tiramisu aside, took me outside of Cairo in a way that restaurants here rarely do. After coffee we were offered grappa and limoncello on the house which, combined with the bruschetta and focaccia we were given when we first sat down, left us with a sense of warm hospitality and wanting to return. The food was not flawless, but when you hit upon the dishes that are right for you, you’ll want to make the trip again and again: if you can find it in the first place. Buona fortuna.

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