Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mario's - It's so nice to have you back where you belong.

On the night of the16th June 2010, at the Cape Town Stadium, Italy had just lost to Paraguay in a soccer world cup match.  Across the road at 89 Main Road Green Point, Pina Marzagalli and her children, Marco and Marilena of Mario's Italian Restaurant, waited to feed the hordes.  That night they consoled the losers, serving plate after plate of Spagetti Aglio Olio.   The Italians who ate there that night were comforted by this home away from home.   A few hours later a fire ripped through this beloved family restaurant, breaking the hearts of the owners and of the legions of Mario's devoted supporters.  It was the also the 24th anniversary of Mario Marzagalli's death;   Mario who had given his name and much of his life to the family business.   The fates were testing Pina Marzagalli and her family cruelly.

But life restores and regenerates and Mario's has been healed and is back in full cry.  We had lunch there recently and it is as lovely and special as ever.  A really warm welcome from the family, a table in a cool corner of the restaurant and a menu to warm the cockles of your heart.

As one approaches the restaurant, the signage is comfortingly familiar.  Once across the threshold one is aware of certain changes.  Only one column covered with graffiti has survived. The walls and ceiling had to be redecorated.  All those memories of meals past, gone.   The  lovely Casablanca fans have disappeared and new chandeliers hold pride of place.  There is a pizza oven at the rear of the restaurant and a new bar where patrons might wait for a table or a pizza perhaps.  The restaurant is light and airy and welcomes you as the previous incarnation welcomed generations of diners.   The aura and the spirit of the place is unchanged and the food, of course, superb as always.

The menu is a large double sheet of stiffened paper.  On one side is a truncated version of the old menu,  divided into sections of starters, pastas, pizzas, fish, veal and meat, sweets and coffee.  The Mario's faithful know that what they see on the page is merely a skeleton of what is actually available and don't even bother to read it.  They wait expectantly and somewhat breathlessly to hear whether their favourites are available.  I believe that they would storm the barricades if thwarted in their culinary quests.

Pina tells us with pride that she can now get real veal. Yes, real veal.  She also lists the 'specials' as if each is the most appetizing thing on earth.  I swear Eugene's eyes grew misty with emotion.  Marrow bones on toast, sauteed lamb kidneys, Portuguese sardines deboned and lightly fried, rabbit casserole with wild mushrooms, Italian sausage served with lentils and spinach, quail on demand and that day, a special pasta, Tagliarini Vongole.  Now all we had to do was to choose.

Eugene's love affair with Mrs Mario's oxtail casserole continues unabated.  Every other oxtail dish he ever eats is measured against hers.  It is his yardstick of perfection.  So his choice was easy.  Sauteed lamb kidneys to start and then Coda Di Bue Brasata, oxtail casserole at its best.  I chose another special that day, Melanzane di Parmigiana, followed by the Tagliarini Vongole.  A Peroni beer for Eugene and a glass of crisp, chilled sauvignon blanc for me.  On the reverse side of the food menu is a full bar menu.  There is a cross-section of wines on offer, or you can bring your own and pay corkage.  I am always grateful for this option which nowadays is rarely found.

While we waited for our food, we sipped our drinks and nibbled on divine herb foccacia which was served instead of bread.  Everything at Mario's is fresh.  Microwave ovens and 'bain-maries' are verboten.  No frozen or recycled food at this establishment.  A certain number of portions are made fresh everyday and kept in the refrigerator, never a freezer.  It takes half a day to make enough pasta for 2 or 3 days.  When it has been used up, they start the process all over again.

We ate our starters with gusto.  Eugene loved the lamb kidneys and my Melanzane di Parmigiana was superb as always.  I could tell from the faraway look on Eugene's face that his mind was already on the oxtail.  It arrived steaming and fragrant, meat absolutely glistening  and dressed with a rich wine gravy.  Cooked for 4 to 5 hours, the meat literally falls off the bone, succulent, juicy and tasty beyond belief.  He had rediscovered oxtail Nirvana.   My Tagliarini Vongole was a delight, delicate and beautifully prepared.

Just when we thought that we could not eat another thing, Marilena emerged from the kitchen brandishing a piece of homemade almond praline.  This is a brittle confection made of almond and caramelized sugar and much like peanut brittle, except with almonds.  Eugene was reminded of a childhood favourite.  But there was more.  Marilena's next offering was fresh homemade ice cream with crushed praline.  Eaten at room temperature and before the ice cream set, it was creamy, crunchy and delicious.  In its frozen form, this mixture becomes the wonderful Semifreddo.   In my opinion Mario's almond praline ice cream is the best you'll ever taste.

After the lunch guests had left, Pina and her children sat down to eat lunch together.  It is always a delight to watch Italians who understand and love food, eating together.  There is such gusto and energy.  Pina of the alabaster skin and glorious smile is the linchpin of the family and the business.  Her children will tell you how traditional she is in her approach to life and to the restaurant.  But, she has had to move with the times.  She reluctantly agreed to allow a pizza oven on the condition that only Italian pizzas would be made.  The cognoscenti will tell that these are the very best.

Magnificently undaunted, Pina, Marco and Marilena have overcome the devastating setbacks of the recent months.  They are once again producing their wonderful Northern Italian food.   Real food prepared with passion and love.  Buon Appetito..

Mario's is open for lunch and dinner from Monday to Friday from 12:00 - 23:00
                                                                Saturday - Dinner only. 
                                                                Closed on Sunday

Telephone:  021 439 6644

Address:  89 Main Road Green Point

Eugene and I love eating out and we always pay for ourselves whenever and wherever we go.

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