At the New Osteria Restaurant in Nairobi

There’s a special photograph hanging in the main dining room of the Osteria Milano – Nairobi’s new restaurant in Kedong House at the corner of Lenana and Ralph Bunche roads. The black and white photo is of a lady wearing an apron and standing in the doorway of a restaurant in Milan called Osteria. The date the photograph was taken was 1946. The restaurant belonged to the lady. And the lady was the grandmother of Maurizio Corti, the owner of nine Osteria restaurants in Kenya, open or soon to open – three in Nairobi, two in Malindi, and one in each of Mombasa, Narok, Nanyuki and Diani.

I was invited to the Osteria Milano last Saturday lunchtime, and I was welcomed by Maurizio. He is a big man, Maurizio. He has big ideas. It was a fascinating conversation, with both Maurizio and the manager of the restaurant, Daniele Vivian.

We talked about the Italian food culture. I grew up at a time when Britain didn’t have a food culture. It was only when as a teenager on cycling holidays in what we then called the ‘Continent’ that I learnt that a restaurant could be much more than a place where you eat. And so I knew what Maurizio was talking about when he described the way in Italy friends would come together in an osteria after work, drinking wine, eating food, and spending hours there talking about the day’s work, about the last football match, about the next one – about anything.

As you must know, running a restaurant is a tough and risky business. Maurizio has made a success of it. So I asked him for his formula.

‘A number of things have to be good,’ he said. ‘A restaurant must have a good chef, good food, good service, good lighting, good music… But, very important, the relationships have to be right, and the atmosphere – the ambiance – has to be special.’

Well, his latest Osteria does have a special ambiance. It could have been, all of it, transported straight from Milan – a bigger, and perhaps even better place that what his grandmother used to run. There are solid wooden tables – some of them high and round ones that are typical of such places in Milan.

There are photographs of the city around the walls. Along with his grandmother’s place there is a canal lined with restaurants and bars, a catwalk with a row of models, a portrait of the designer, Giorgio Armani – because, above all, Milan is Italy’s city of fashion.

The centrepiece of the main dining room is a large, square, and very well stocked bar. So the ambiance is different from the al fresco feel of the well-known, well-patronised, and soon to be re-opened Osteria del Chianti further out on the Lenana Road and on the site of the Casablanca nightclub. But the menu of varied Italian cuisine is the same: a wide variety of pastas, pizzas, meats and seafood dishes.

I asked Daniele about the specialities of the house. He singled out the Risotto Milanese with osso buco – veal shanks braised with vegetables and white wine. He also mentioned the Gigliata di pesco – a mixed grill of lobster, prawns, red snapper and squid – and the Cotolette alia Milanese di pollo – boneless chicken in breadcrumbs with cherry tomatoes and rockets.

I kept it simple and ordered the Ravioli Serrentina – ravioli with tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. It was delicious. So was what followed – an ice cream with strawberries.

I will be back to sample Daniele’s prized selection of Italian and French wines, displayed on shelves lining the walls. And I will take along some friends, so we can spend a few hours talking about work and football and Formula 1 … but, after the latest triumph of English Hamilton and the German Mercedes team, I won’t mention the Italian Ferraris.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation