Pizzas. They are an Italian invention, based on a yeasted flatbread, spread with mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce and baked in an oven. But their glory is that they can also be topped with a variety of vegetables, meats, and condiments. ‘The great thing about pizzas,’ says Alessandro, ‘is that they can be made of whatever you like.
Alessandro is the manager of the Pizzeria Il Portico, recently opened at the Lavington Mall, on the ground floor and alongside the Artcaffé. It is called Il Portico, meaning a porch or an entrance, because it is outside the main doors of the mall. We went there last Sunday at lunchtime, and Alessandro was challenged by my wife, Lut. She is a vegan and she asked him if he could make a pizza without cheese.
‘No problem,’ he said. ‘You like aubergines?’
‘You like red and green peppers?’
And that’s what he ordered to be assembled, slid into the oven, cooked and served.
I fancied something with a bit of bite above the cheese and tomato sauce, and I went for the Romana with its sprinkle of anchovies – along with a glass of sharp Italian red wine.
The pizzeria is a second venture of the group that set up the La Tasca wine bar on the first floor of the same mall. I went to have a chat with Maurizio, La Tasca’s ebullient host. To be honest, I often have a chat with Maurizio, because his bar is near my office and it has become a favourite haunt, whether for a quiet business lunch or a social sundowner on the way home. It has just celebrated its first anniversary – and a very successful year it has been.
So I asked Maurizio why, with this success, he is opening another place. ‘For the same reason that led us to set up La Tasca – the location in Lavington,’ he said. ‘It has become quite a dynamic place. And we have found just the right spot for a pizzeria. You can’t be in two places at the same time, but Il Portico is just one floor below La Tasca, so I can easily overlook what is going on down there. And running up and down the stairs will help me keep my weight down!’
‘You know that La Tasca is Spanish – I spent 17 years in Spain – but I am Italian, and Il Portico is an authentic Italian place, with a touch of Kenyan style. In Italy, we like the crust of the pizzas to be quite thick, but we have discovered that Kenyans seem to prefer the crust to be thin – and crustier.’
Maurizio explained, too, that the flour is imported from Italy, which is then blended with Kenyan flour, in order to produce a pizza that doesn’t lie too heavily, like a brick, in your stomach.
He went on to describe the ‘Big Pizza Metro’ that they serve, which is very popular in Italy. It is 70 centimetres long, and it is ideal for sharing as a family or as a group of friends. It epitomises the kind of place Il Portico aims to be.
Il Portico is different from La Tasca, not only in the food it offers but also in its very raison d’etre. What is special about La Tasca is that it is a place where you can talk, as well as enjoy your food and drink. More than that – the place is small enough, the host is so inclusive in his greetings, and there are so many ‘regulars’, that there is interaction and you can feel part of the whole group when you are there.
La Tasca has a character that you cannot get in a restaurant where your company is only those at your own table – or in a bar where the music is so loud that you cannot talk or the TV screen is so intrusive. In La Tasca, you don’t see people spending much time on their mobile phones – they are engaged, they are talking. I know of no other place in Nairobi that has such an ambiance. It is a place where you could easily spend too much of your time!
But Il Portico is very different. It is a simple place. The furniture is not sophisticated. It is very open. Nothing is hidden. Some people might linger for a time at the bar; the beer is chilled and the wines are all Italian. But, for the most part, it is a place where a family, a couple, or a group of friends will come to eat pizza – and go away replete but not weighed down.
‘And you should try the lasagne,’ said Maurizio. ‘Alessandro’s lasagne is something to die for. And we are also making the focaccia, with its olive oil and herbs – very special. When you are down there, people will not be talking about football, they will be talking about food.’