A Little Italy in Dagoretti Corner

Sometimes I act on a tip-off. Like the other day, when a friend said he’d not seen a Going Places on L’Arena Restaurant at Dagoretti Corner.

‘You really should try it,’ he said. ‘Don’t be put off by the area… Just go. And you will be surprised.’

Well, many times when I’ve driven out along Ngong Road and seen the sign I have wondered what it would be like. I had been told that the restaurant was set up by Germano Tarocco, who used to have one at Malindi and later at the Racecoure here in Nairobi. But on the right-hand side of the road past Dagoretti Corner, among the jua kali metal work sites and the nyama choma joints – it didn’t seem the kind of place Germano would choose for a smart Italian restaurant.

Sadly, Germano died just over a year ago. And my friend told me that his wife, Fatuma, had taken over the management of L’Arena – now helped by her sister, Katra.

Anyway – I went. And, yes, I was very surprised. By a number of things.

To get to L’Arena you turn off the Ngong Road into St Daniel Comboni Road, just less than a kilometre from the actual corner of Dagoretti Corner. After only a hundred metres, you turn right again and into the Shalom House compound – where you will find yourself in a very different and, true to its Hebrew name, peaceful world.

Around a large square of lawns and a garden, there is the Shalom guest house, an IT school and cyber cafe, and homes to a number of projects – all the brainchildren of Father Kizito of the Comboni community – the Father Kiziti who used to run a column in this same newspaper.

Tucked well into a corner, is L’Arena Pizzeria and Italian Restaurant. So, immediately, one concern can be dealt with: here there is plenty of room to safely park your car – and yourself. Your family too – because there is a children’s playground under the trees of the garden. That’s the first impression, then – of a sheltered and secure place.

If the Shalom compound is different from its surroundings – so, too, L’Arena is different from whatever else in its compound. It is a little corner of Italy. Not so much outside, perhaps, where you can sit on the veranda with its bamboo ceiling, hanging flower baskets, green creepers across the grey stone wall, and wooden trestle tables.

But, inside, it could be a pizzeria of a village near Verona. Not that I’ve been to Verona…. but that is how Germano designed it, with the decorative brickwork, the wine bottles lining the walls, photographs of Italian football stars, and a pizza oven in the far corner that Germano built himself.

And the food? Very Italian, of course – and plenty of it. They serve a huge, on-the-house, foccaccia that they call a biting but, for me, could be a sufficient meal. There is a generous range of pizzas with various toppings, steaks with various sauces, pastas, a tiramisu – well, whatever you would find in a pizzeria and restaurant somewhere near Verona. All with a wide range of Italian wines.

Fatuma wasn’t there the lunchtime I went. But her sister, Katra, was confidently welcoming and in charge. She told me about the history of the restaurant, the sad story of Germano – whose spirit still permeates the place – and how she really enjoys helping to make sure his restaurant lives on.

That evening I was glad to discover that the photographs I had taken were too fuzzy. Because it gave me a good excuse to go back for dinner. At night, L’Arena makes for a very romantic corner, with its coloured lights and flickering candles. But it was my son who went back with me. After he had devoured two thirds of the foccaccia, a pepper steak and half of my ante-pasta; after another chat with Katra – he said,   ‘This is a very nice place – very friendly.’ From him, this is as extravagant as he can get in his praise. And I can only agree.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation