I’ve never been particularly partial to pasta, even when living in Italy. I could just never see the point and don’t ever order it in a restaurant, preferring my own concoctions at home, which generally ain’t too bad. (South African restaurants tend to maul pasta to a mush that’s most unpalatable.)
So that was my personal pasta philosophy, until I recently attended a Pasta Ripiena Master Class by Chef Giorgio Nava at one of his 95 Collection restaurants, 95 at Parks.
Well, clearly, I’d never had proper pasta before. Now, I’m a complete convert. Evangelical, even. Yes, I’ll shout it from the rooftops: Pasta reigns supreme, but only when made by a master.
Chef Giorgio was ably assisted by Maria Giovana Palumbo, the honourary Italian mama, and 95 at Parks’ Head Chef Jonas Munyaneza, from Rwanda. Each of the trio have their own preferred method for making pasta, and it’s all good.
Giorgio is an amusing raconteur, animated and sincere, and very, very passionate about his Italian food heritage. Nothing less than perfection will do. Extraordinary attention is paid to detail, the best ingredients sourced meticulously, using time-honoured methods. The proof is in the..well, not exactly pudding, but the pasta was certainly extraordinary. Feather-light and flavoursome, a rich yellow hue from the amount of eggs added to the dough, each different stuffed pasta shape was served with its complementary sauce. Ravioli, cappelletti, tortellini and, my personal favourite, faggottini or little bundles, that looked like tiny flowerbuds.
Snacks were served before the action began – melt-in-the-mouth zucchini fritti and slivers of Grana Padano. As with all things Italian, the proper method, precise temperature of flour, zucchini and oil are all crucial to ensure perfect crispness and texture. I could easily have slipped the whole wedge of Grana Padano into my handbag and was sorely tempted to do so – its mild, mellow sweetness making it the perfect appetiser.
After the demonstration, we were treated to a seemingly never-ending feast of different stuffed pastas and a little treat of deep-fried Montanara pizza, a street-food snack that originated in Naples. I’ve been obsessed ever since, and can’t wait to take my entire family back to relive the experience.
It takes time and patience to get the pizza pasta dough just so – Chef Giorgio uses a 150 year-old mother yeast from a panettone factory in Italy for the dough fermentation, a process that takes 48 hours. He explained that this long fermentation improves digestibility and texture of the famous house-made pizzas, grissini and foccaccia.
The pasta dough is put through a pasta roller (or hand-rolled) until it has reached the desired thinness to be cut and filled. A true labour of love; passion in action.
The Pasta Ripiena festival is served at both restaurants in the 95 Collection, i.e. 95 at Parks, and 95 Keerom.
I took the opportunity to ask Chef Giorgio 5 questions, which he answered in his inimitable, straightforward way.
EDCT: Giorgio, when did you first come to South Africa and what made you decide to live here and open a string of highly successful restaurants? Any regrets if you could do it all over?
GN: I arrived in Cape Town 20 years ago, saw a good opportunity in a beautiful city and country that keeps me here, yes, I have no regrets.
EDCT: Food is a story and also an expression of a country’s culture and soul. You tell the story of Italian food very well with great skill. What does your heritage of Italian food mean to you, what is it that you want people who eat at your restaurants to experience and understand of this heritage?
GN: In my plate beside the food, I add the idea that Italy it is a country with lots of history, culture, art, fashion, design and not only pasta and pizza.
EDCT: More than any other chef I’ve known, you take the customer’s experience and needs of restaurant dining very much to heart. You are very aware of market needs and constantly adapt, yet always stay true to your own vision. How do you manage to achieve this balance consistently? Some chefs become detached from the customer’s experience of their food, but to you it always genuinely seems to matter
GN: It is a simple formula, cooking and eating is a natural passion in any Italian family, bring food to any table and there must be a joy and feast, my customer are treated like family not like clients.
EDCT: You travel widely and stay in touch with colleagues and developments abroad. What are your thoughts about the South African culinary scene at present, especially fine dining?
GN: SA Fine dining has become extremely boring, everyone cooks and plates the same food in the same way with Asian influences that has nothing to do with this country. All the new young chefs have been working for a short time in the same 3 (famous) restaurants that are copy paste, they all use tweezers to plate invisible food and all love tattoos and beards.
EDCT: Being a professional chef is one of the most demanding careers imaginable – physically, emotionally, and financially. Great sacrifices are required on many levels. What continues to inspire you and keep you going?
GN: I am a workaholic and I love new challenges, I can’t live with the same routine.
For more about the Pasta Ripiena experience on offer at 95 at Parks and 95 Keerom until the end of July, click here: Feast on Pasta Ripiena at 95 Keerom and 95 at Parks