It is exactly 50 years since Federico Fellini filmed La dolce vita (1959), his neo-realist tragicomedy about socialites, movie stars and gossip columnists. The film coined the term paparazzi, after the name of one of its characters, a freelance celebrity photographer called Paparazzo.
The somewhat forgotten Cucina Paparazzi these days caters to the walk-in trade from St George’s Mall. It’s decorated with huge, black and white photographs of the famous: Evita Bezuidenhout snapped arriving at Heathrow Airport in the 1980s; Grace Jones; theatre producer Basil Rubin chaperoning Marlene Dietrich on her visit to South Africa in 1966. Rubin still hosts an Algonquin-style, round-table lunch every Thursday.
The Cucina Paparazzi might have the name, but no restaurant in Cape Town evokes the same wistful yearning for a little dolce far niente as La Perla. Opened by Italian immigrant Emiliano Sandri 40 years ago this year, it has been in the family ever since.
Initially located on Waterkant Street, it moved to Beach Road, the perfect promenade location in the 1970s for lunch-time boulevadiers and the jet set to enjoy after-dinner passeggiate. This is where the Junoesque women and their playboys hung out with the stars, to find themselves in the social pages, or later on in celebrity surgeon Chris Barnard’s saucy memoirs. He was here “keeping happy and up-to-date on female anatomy”.
That was before my time, and I’ve been eating at La Perla for 20 years, ever since I came of age in the late 1980s.
The classic menu hasn’t changed; the music remains nostalgic Latin—Nina Rota and Cesária Évora. The older clientele know the dignified waiters by name in their starched-white uniforms. The service is professional, though it can be cold and offhand; the food at times is mediocre; the prices are always steep; but La Perla is an establishment that grows new loyalties, and stands apart from the constant openings, closings and takeovers of Seapoint’s restaurant scene. Its persistent presence has made it a place of respite.
A few months ago, I spied FW de Klerk (who has moved in up the road) quietly enjoying a meal on his own with a newspaper and SMSing on his cellphone. Sandri’s sons, who took over the business, introduced a cigar lounge and wine shop. For a brief spell, thanks to a rather decadent crowd of bon vivants, there was standing room only and permanently occupied toilets.
The faithful persisted, even when the horrid little orange patio chairs bent beneath them or the soiled, sagging umbrellas failed to provide adequate shade, and finding parking became increasingly frantic.
Now, after almost a year of building—during which the restaurant never closed—it is finally renovated. It’s a good improvement, slightly expanded, with better functionality, but the features that keep it unique have not been sacrificed. The heavy, wooden, carved Ceasar chairs and the fabulous lipstick ceiling lights are still in place.
One concession to changing times is a plunge pool and cocktail patio that replaces the lawn on the roadside. I recall this patch of grass usually filled by nannies with their white charges and prams, while kugeldom, dolled up to the nines, enjoyed a liquid lunch and devoured the abomination.
If you arrive around noon, you may have steamed bread straight from the oven: if slightly moist and doughy, it’s welcoming. Although the menu is extensive—containing meat, poultry and all the classic pastas—I find it hard not to order seafood when sitting in full view of the ocean.
A starter of garlic chilli calamari (R60) never fails. Also the Mossel Bay oysters (R18 each, but SQ ie seasonal quotation) are the creamiest I’ve ever tasted. From their very varied shape and size—some shells nicely cupped, others flat as a pancake—I presume they are wild and not cultivated. The Italian table salad (R50) is peasant style, always with boiled egg, olives, heads of lettuce and large cut crudité-style carrots and cucumbers. For mains, the seared tuna (R120) is infallible, or the seafood tagliatelle (R150), tomato based with generous amounts of mussels, clams, juicy shelled prawns and octopus tentacles.
All indications are this old celebrity hangout’s facelift will pay off handsomely.