It bodes well when most of the patrons in the restaurant are speaking Italian. At the big table in the corner are a trio of magnificently groomed Italian men. Over there are another three Italian men, younger, with fewer pairs of designer spectacles between them. Between the pillar and the wall, three Italian women have just sat down.
Andrea Volpe, the Tuscan chef here, is standing chatting to them. He is tall, lean, curly-haired, dressed entirely in white. His tanned face, with its powerful profile, is frequently split by an enormous grin.
Pesce Azzurro in Woodstock was recommended to me by an Italian. She said I would taste regional fish dishes here that I wouldn’t easily find outside Italy. She said the quality of cooking, and the tastes of home, were what attracted Italian-and Sicilian-speaking diners.
Pesce Azzurro means “blue fish” in Italian. The fish in this category are also, confusingly, known as “red meat fish”. We know them as “oily fish”: anchovies, sardines, mackerel, tuna, swordfish and the like.
Some of the best oily fish in the world swim in the Mediterranean Sea, especially alongside Italy. Oily fish need to be cooked very fresh. They like to be marinated and grilled. They take strong flavours like chilli well. In Italy, oily fish are caught and cooked alongside local seafood like octopus, squid and mussels.
In clumsy hands, oily fish can taste like pet food and seafood can turn to rubber. In the right hands, seafood can be all delicacy and sweetness and oily fish can be a revelation: tender, meaty, salty and rich.Volpe is that pair of hands.
The tuna tartare was inspiring: small cubes of dark pink yellowfin tuna flesh combined with salted capers (an occasional crunch of salt offset the soft meat) and a surprise addition: fresh mint. The sweet green freshness of the herb gave the meat more depth. It also made the dish less serious, less reverential of the raw fish. It’s reassuring to be in the hands of a chef so confident.
The tuna carpaccio was sliced to the perfect thickness: thin enough to be slivers; thick enough to taste the flesh. It was dressed with nothing but a swirl of olive oil and a sprinkle of pepper. The raw fish dishes were not served with lemon or any other garnish.
The dark, chewy ciabatta was sliced so thinly as to be almost transparent in the centre. At Pesce Azzurro, the chef sees no need to put butter, oil, salt or pepper on the table.
The raw tuna transported us, but the other three tapas dishes settled us at a seaside table on a perfect evening in Italy. The aubergine caponata was a masterclass in balance, with sweet, slightly crunchy onion offsetting smoky, velvety aubergine flesh. The broth that gathered under the little pale shells of the clams was delectable: faintly fishy, a little garlicky, with the freshness of uncooked herbs.
The octopus salad was, I’m guessing, the best octopus salad I’ll ever eat. The octopus chunks and curvy tentacle points were as tender as squid, but a more satisfying mouthful — and the bumpy mauve skin, a more exotic proposition on the fork too. The tomato flesh was as sweet as sunshine; the celery slices like drops of rain on a hot day.
The Spaghetti Scoglio – the restaurant’s famous seafood pasta dish with calamari, prawns, octopus, mussels and a hint of chilli – was remarkable for the spaghetti itself. The strands were so springy they resembled the texture of the seafood – and yet there were no uncooked centres.
The Spaghetti Scoglio – like the grilled swordfish with sweet peppers, aubergine and zucchini – was indisputably masterful. The fish and seafood were cooked to perfection. The vegetables were cooked to perfection. The presentation was so spare it was almost spartan. The three well-dressed gents alongside us ate from one large swordfish steak and one large tuna steak placed in the centre of the table. It looked very Italian.
But my heart stayed back with the tapas. I can’t wait to go back and try the marinated sardines, the potato and octopus dish and the monkfish soup.
At Pesce Azzurro, five tapas plates cost under R100. It’s not bad for a short holiday in the Med.
Pesce Azzurro 021 447-2009; 113 Roodebloem Road, Woodstock