Barrack Street in Cape Town’s CBD is home to many a nefarious establishment, with the vile Home Affairs Department and Mavericks, the local distribution agent for the Eastern Bloc’s vast prostitution empire, amongst its list of less than glamorous tenants. Barrack Street is where good taste goes to die, so it was with a fair degree of trepidation that we slinked into Il Cappero, an unassuming new eatery that unfortunately shares part of its address with some of the aforementioned dives. The promise of authentic, Sicilian cuisine (more on what the hell that actually means later) proved sufficiently alluring for us to bite the bullet and brave the Barrack. And what a wise move it turned out to be…
I want to say that, upon entry into Il Cappero, I was immediately transported to another time and place, impervious to the somewhat grungy surrounds (that’s the kind of thing food reviewers say right?). This would, however, be a lie. The sights and sounds of the inner city are very much in evidence, with the giant iron entrance gates serving as a very real reminder of one’s location. The interior is simple and to the point, with beautiful Venetian panoramas, photographed by the restaurant’s owner, adorning the lilac walls, lest anyone were to forget this was an Italian restaurant.
Well, Sicilian – to be more precise. The difference between the two is subtle, but very apparent, and as I read through the menu I started to panic slightly, noting that almost every dish included some of, if not ALL of, my least favourite ingredients in the world. Ever. As my eye scanned over a myriad dishes laced with various forms of personal kryptonite (aubergines and olives featuring most prominently), I started preparing myself for that awkward moment when I’d be forced to smile sheepishly at the waiter and say, “Nothing for me thanks – big lunch”, all the while surreptitiously hurling complimentary bread down my gullet like a rabid wolf.
(I must just take a moment to pay my respects to the bread – absolutely out of this world!)
Possibly sensing my escalating panic, Aldo, who runs the restaurant along with his lovely wife Cetti, whipped himself over to the table and charmed me silly, completely allaying my worries with a one-two punch of Mediterranean flair and endearingly broken English. After discussing the various menu options, we opted to let him make our decisions for us – a sensible move that paid off in the best possible way.
First up was a starter of Caponata di Melanzane, a traditional anti-pasto consisting of brinjals, tomatoes, capers and olives, drenched in a sweet and sour sauce. While I wouldn’t ever dream of consuming any of those ingredients on their own, the combination was mind blowing, with the salty tastes of the capers and olives beautifully off-set by the subtle sweetness of the sauce. The brinjals also added a meaty texture to the whole affair, and, as a pretty big fan of meat, this pleased me to no end. This was gobbled down at a rate of knots, savagely disposed of like a buffalo carcass by a starving pack of hyenas.
Our main course consisted of a selection of speciality dishes, the first of which was the restaurant’s pièce de resistance – the Pasta Con Ricci, or sea-urchin pasta. Sea-urchin is not something with which most people are immediately familiar (I’m not even sure I know what one looks like), so let me try to explain it. The first memory evoked in my mind when I bit into the urchin was of summers spent at the beach, being dumped by waves in high-tide and acquiring a mouth full of sand and sea water as a result. Whilst that doesn’t sound especially appealing on paper (must work on my metaphors), it is actually surprisingly pleasant, and the palate seems to adjust to the shock of it all by the second or third bite. Slight hints of lemon and olive oil balance things out nicely, and, in spite of giant odds being stacked against it, this dish really works. Well.
Next up – a dreamy porcini mushroom risotto. (The restaurant serves only fresh ingredients, so the risotto changes daily – probably best to call in advance just to be sure of what’s available). Buttery, rich heaven in a bowl, this was, hands down, the best risotto I’ve ever tasted – cooked to perfection and infused with a subtle cheesiness that can still induce pangs of longing upon reflection.
Now officially stuffed, it was time for one last dive into the seemingly never-ending conveyor belt of goodness. Dessert came in the form of traditional Sicilian cannoli, legendary delicacies which I’ve only ever heard spoken of in The Godfather movies. Seems those Italian crooks are onto something because DAMN, what a find. A sweet ricotta filling wrapped in a crispy biscuit blanket has understandably earned its status as a bit player in mafia films, offering an ample hit of rich, sweet creaminess, without being overpowering. The perfect way to end a meal.
Il Cappero is a truly refreshing and unique dining venue, completely devoid of Capetonian pomposity, and oozing with its own charm and flavour. The menu really does reward the more adventurous palate, and you’d be well advised to go in with an open mind in order to have it well and truly blown. For the more cautious diner, there are more standard ‘meat and potato’ options, but I strongly suggest you explore the full spectrum of the very varied menu, and you might be surprised at what you find.
Il Cappero is open from 12:30 to 14:30 on weekdays, and from 6:30pm from Monday to Saturday. You can find it, and you will have to look quite hard, at 3 Barrack Street, CBD. For bookings, call (021) 461 3168 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org