Fashion and proximity to where food critics live plays more of a role than it ought to in the awarding of prizes. There are some mediocre restaurants that turn up in the ‘best of’ lists year after year like bad pennies. And then there are some superb restaurants, like Ritrovo in Pretoria, that are consistently overlooked. I have no wish to bad mouth the mediocre but I do want to state clearly that I believe Ritrovo to be the best Italian restaurant in South Africa.
Put simply, Ritrovo is getting things right that other so called Italian restaurants are getting wrong. Of course, Italian food is regional and there is no such thing as one Italian cuisine but there are core national traits that are very often ignored in South Africa. Whatever the chef’s regional origin (assuming it is not Greece), most restaurants purporting to be Italian in South Africa are offering supersized version of classic dishes. There is simply too much food coming per plate.
The problem is that South Africans think in three courses not four. Many of us are uncomfortable making each course proportionally smaller and thereby having space for an extra one as Italians do. If a meal is a culinary sentence, we are often starting in the middle and never getting to the full stop. A gastronomic experience that should flow becomes disjointed. Within an Italian epicurean mind-set, the gigantic plates of pasta that we expect are weird and vulgar.
Even at Ritrovo they will humour you and make the South African supersized portion if you really must have it but there are gentle notes on the menu helping diners to pace their progress so as to still have space for dolce. My antipasto Arancini were perfectly sized. Had there been more I would have eaten them eagerly but the two modestly sized rice balls made with plump risotto rice (each one with a morsel of melted Mozzarella and what I suspect was the merest pinch of nutmeg) left me keen to continue on to my next course rather than undone by my own greed.
If I am truly honest, I would have been undone by launching into my partner’s Peperonata con Salsiccia but he knows me and guarded his sausage. The one bite I was allowed to try provided a delicious balance of herbal fennel flavours and luxurious plump pork. Sausages can leave a diner with a greasy mouth-feel but this one came with its own palate cleaner in the form of tart pickled peppers. Pasta portions come modest, al dente and gently sauced.
While we are on the topic of excessive portions, let’s look at cheese. South African Italian restaurants use too much of it and in the wrong places. Whether Lasagne, melanzane or even pizza there is very often disproportionate layer of oily, heavy cheese hiding other ingredients. Not so at Ritrovo where the Melanzane Parmigiana strikes a perfect ratio of tomato, fried aubergine and cheese.
The sophistication of Italian cooking lies in the very simple preparation of a few perfect ingredients. The flavours at Ritrovo demonstrate the true artistry of such simplicity. I ate a main-course sized salad of Insalata di Rinforzo in which anchovies added a savoury, umami depth to the simple cauliflower dish. The Neopolitan Christmas classic offered a celebration of flavours; minimum fuss and maximum taste. I was entranced. Costata alla Fiorentina is always a risky choice because South Africans struggle to appreciate its plainness. They seem determined to add superfluous French sauces. At Ritrovo this carnivorous classic was finished with roasted Garlic and Rosemary. Finish and Klaar.
The wine list is a joy to behold – and that is before one enters the wine cellar adjacent to the restaurant and sees how much of the chef’s collection is not on the paper version of the offering. Chef-patron Fortunato Mazzone has carefully collected a vast cellarful of rare and old bottlings from around the world. His personal passion for the topic shines bright and strong. Wines by the glass are plentiful and his extensive wine industry contacts mean that he has access to innovative, limited edition offerings. I was driving so restricted myself to a single glass of the Chef’s own label Nick and Forti Viognier which proved itself to be beautifully perfumed and tantalizingly crisp. I longed for more.
Service is a strength at every level. Mazzone is as warm and kind as he is thoughtful and well-informed. His long serving, professional waiters are quick, unobtrusive and knowledgeable about both food and wine. They can suggest a sensible wine pairing and astutely judge the pace and mood of each table.
We shared a dessert special that was billed as torrone ice cream but had the ethereal, mousse-like texture of a semifreddo. It was mellow with honeyed notes. We were both very sorry that we had decided to share and much spoon tustling ensued.
Fantastic food. Fantastic service. Fantastic wine. Pleasant view (overlooking undulating hills). What’s not to love? It deserves to win prizes. Maybe this year it will…
Ritrovo Ristorante 012 460 4367; 2 Waterkloof Heights Shopping Centre, 103 Club Avenue, Waterkloof Heights, Pretoria.