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Leefstyl | Lifestyle > Kos & Wyn | Food & Wine > Rubrieke | Columns > Paul Murray: Murray's Food Trails

The Mamma Roma Trail

Paul Murray - 2010-03-02

Anna Magnani takes the main part in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s masterpiece Mamma Roma (1962). She takes on the job of a sex worker to make ends meet, in the meantime deciding to give up her son because she struggles to bear the ignominy. Sixteen years later, now in the pound seats, she resumes life with her son ... but it does not work out and the closing scene shows her staring out the window from the apartment on to the Vatican.

Only a true artist could write such a story, as the writer of one of the reviews suggests: “Pasolini again weaves an undercurrent of religion, politics and philosophy under the surface of his filmic parable.”

Figure 1. Anna Magnani, who plays Mamma Roma in the film with the same name.
(Photo credit – Google Images)

It’s this “ingenio” (true genius) of the Italians that you find in their work, not least in their fine cookery renowned the world over – true masters of simple cooking.

Cape Town’s history of Italian restaurants goes back in time, to Rossi’s, La Fontana, Hildebrand on the Foreshore, and more recently, by comparison, Chris Barnard’s La Vita in Newlands, now replaced by the exquisite Mamma Roma. As at the time when Barnard and Aldo Novato owned La Vita, still today each patron at Mamma Roma is seated at his/her own Caesar Chair. You feel special when you eat there, like Caesar (or Cleopatra).

Figure 2. A typical Caesar Chair. Each chair at Mamma Roma is a Caesar Chair. (Photo credit – Google Images)

The contribution from the proprietors Romano and Cristina Gorrini and their family is considerable, considering that today in Cape Town and environs there are no fewer than six successfully operating Mamma Roma restaurants. They themselves own three and husband, wife, daughter and son-in-law personally work in them on a day-to-day basis, ensuring the finest in quality and service for patrons ― a quality assurance that’s almost two decades old.

Figure 3. Romano, the mastermind behind Mamma Roma.
(Photo – P Murray)

It takes one back to the original Mamma Roma in Stellenbosch, established in 1985 by Romano. When the opportunity to come to Cape Town arose, Romano applied the true Italian philosophy: “Carpe Diem” (“Seize the day”), although one can be sure that, contrary to the whole quotation (“Carpe diem quam minime credula postero” – “Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future”), they certainly put their trust in the future. It’s all been a huge success, as one can clearly see from so many Mamma Romas having mushroomed all over Cape Town (five in and around the city and one in Stellenbosch).

Figure 4. Marisa, daughter of Roman and Cristina, manages the Century City Mamma Roma. (Photo – P Murray)

Freudians would say it’s all about the emblem, the little Romans being suckled by the she-wolf, Rhea Silvia, that attracts the patrons!

Figure 5. The mother she-wolf suckling the two Romans Romulus and Remus. (Photo credit – Google Images)

But it’s more likely that people go there for the fine Italian fare, not forgetting, of course, the ambience, friendliness and undercover/secure parking! The Newlands branch is close to schools and swimming, rugby and cricket stadia, and so it makes it an ideal meeting place before or after the game; the Bo-Kaap branch is intimate and secure; and the Century City one is three storeys high, with ample space and parking.

A favourite is the braised lamb shank at Mamma Roma in Bo-Kaap – it must have been cooking all day.

Figure 6. Slow-braised lamb shank.
(Photo credit – Google Images)

I thought I would try to make some and came across Chef Jim White’s recipe (slightly adapted), reproduced here ready for readers to try in winter (enough for two). Instead of the Sirah we use Shiraz.

6-8 lamb shanks
1 Tbs butter
3 large minced garlic cloves
2 cups Shiraz
2 carrots, diced
1 large onion, finely diced
4 stalks celery, finely diced
2 cups tomatoes, finely diced
4 cups beef stock
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp rosemary
1 Tbs Worcestershire Sauce
1 Tbs A-1 Sauce

Sear shanks on grill long enough to get a smoky flavour. In a large ovenproof dish, melt the butter and sauté the garlic just until you can smell it. Add carrots, onions and celery and sauté until glazed. Add the red wine and all other ingredients and bring to a simmer. Cover and bake for 2½ hours.

Then, in a sauté pan heat:
2 Tbs. butter
2 carrots, diced
1 onion, diced
4 stalks celery, diced
4 cups sliced mushrooms
Sauté until well glazed and add to already braised shanks. Stir well, cover and put in the oven for an additional ½ hour.
Serve with rice.

Jim White’s Casa Vieja
4541 Corrales Rd
Corrales, NM 87048

At Mamma Roma, Romano is well known for introducing a very delicate fish carpaccio on the menu, and given the fresh quality of the selection from our waters it is a perfect starter. My Italian guest could simply not get over its tasty quality ... and given that the Mediterranean is practically fished out, it’s not surprising. My friend insisted on a light white wine, feeling that sometimes our South Africa varietals can be a bit on the heavy side.

Figure 7. Fresh fish is a regular item on the menu – Roman has become renowned for his delectable fish carpaccio. The photo hangs on the wall of Mamma Roma Century City. (Photo reproduced by P Murray)

Figure 8. Fish carpaccio is an ideal,
light starter made from fresh Cape fish. (Photo credit – Google Images)

At Mamma Roma Century City my visit coincided with the Italian rugby team beating Scotland. Being of Scottish ancestry, however, I was proud to say the Romans never really got beyond Handrian’s Wall, so Caledonia kept her integrity. That probably accounts for why the Scottish have Haggis and the Romans trippa (tripe). Either way both are ancient, remarkable dishes, coming from two diverse yet culturally rich peoples.

Figure 9. Hadrian’s Wall – a sign that the Roman conquest of the British isles stopped with Scotland. (Photo credit – Google Images)

The World Cup Soccer champions will soon be flocking to Cape Town to defend their title, and so will thousands of Italian fans following them ... And since it is well known that Italians like to eat a la italiana even when away from home, they would have had to go a long way to find what they are used to way back home, were it not for Mamma Roma. That’s what’s special about Mamma Roma – Italian dishes just like Mamma makes them ... Italian cooking genius at its best.

Mamma Roma in Newlands

5 Dean Street Arcade
Tel: 021 685 2051

Piccola Mamma Roma
35 on Rose
Rose Street
Cape Town
Tel: 021 481 1022

Mamma Roma Trattoria & Pizzeria – Century City
Shop G11 & 12
Colosseum Building
Century Boulevard
Century City
Tel: 021 528 0094