Think globally, eat locally at Il Piccolo Mondo
If you’ve ever been to Disneyland or Disney World, you probably remember It’s a Small World, a slow-moving boat ride through a dimly-lit world of audio-animatronic dolls in stereotypical traditional dress from cultures around the world. Japanese geishas, Dutch milkmaids and Egyptian stone-cutters frolic “in a spirit of international unity,” singing what is perhaps the most tedious song ever written in an endless loop extolling the virtues of brotherly love and understanding.
The last time I went on this ride I was 7, but that didn’t stop the tune—which may be the most performed and translated piece of music on earth, according to Wikipedia—from lodging in my head for several days recently. The reason went back to my ongoing search for decent Italian food in Cairo. Despite being one of Egypt’s nearest European neighbors, Italy has failed to export many examples of its famously delicious cuisine to our side of the Mediterranean—certainly not ones that resemble anything you might actually eat in Italy. Il Piccolo Mondo (Small World), on Le Pacha 1901 on Zamalek’s southeastern bank, is one of the few encouraging exceptions to this rule.
According to the “legend” explained on the Le Pacha website, the floating stationary structure was built on the shell of an “abandoned and partially-sunken” boat that had been half constructed by a wealthy old Pacha from Upper Egypt who dreamed of retiring in “a floating palace on the Nile.” The boat, which was restored and expanded in the early 1990s, is now
home to nearly a dozen upscale restaurants featuring Lebanese to pub cuisine. Il Piccolo Mondo is on the lower deck, with large windows overlooking the river, the interior is meant to resemble the Piazza San Carlo, the massive central square of Turin—an ambitious goal for a pokey boat-board restaurant. The walls are hung with dark-green shutters reminiscent of a Tuscan villa and acrylic paintings of the rustic Italian countryside. There are greenand-white checked table cloths, and half a dozen imitation street lamps lighting the dining room, which is divided by stone archways covered in fake ivy and love notes scribbled in magic marker by previous diners, a personal touch amid the generic Italian kitsch. Overall, the place calls to mind a hole-in-the-wall joint in the countryside more than an urban piazza, but that’s probably for the best.
The second thing I noticed is the size of the menu, which is not at all piccolo. In the authentic tradition of Italian trattorias, there’s a large buffet of antipasti on the far side of the room (LE 74.90 for a large selection of cheeses, salads and such) which you could almost certainly make a complete meal of, though I didn’t try— there’s something Dickensian in queuing up for food, plate in hand. We instead turned to the à la carte menu, an extensive array of pasta, risotti and secondi of a bewildering variety. This is usually not a good sign: It’s a classic restaurant error to try to cater to all tastes, overstretching the kitchen and invariably satisfying no one.
My concerns, however, were ill-founded. As primi, we ordered the Spinach Cannelloni (LE 99.90), two nicely cooked pasta packages of spinach with crumbly ricotta covered in melted mozzarella that came hot from the oven in a large oval dish. This was easily generous enough to qualify as a complete meal, which perhaps explains the price. The Risotto Funghi (LE 132.90) was just as generous and even more delicious: creamy arborio rice cooked al dente was flavored with porcini mushrooms and parmesan cheese. My companion and I got about halfway through both dishes before we decided to pace ourselves, given that we had another course on the way and requested our first plates wrapped up to take home.
This was a good thing, as the next plates were even bigger. My friend’s Filetto Gorgonzola (LE 196.90) arrived more rare than medium-rare, as she’d ordered it, but we weren’t terribly bothered by this easily fixable error, being used to steaks in Cairo served perennially overcooked, and we ate it as it was. A thick slab of beef, it was a good, tender cut, and we shared it happily. The gorgonzola sauce was closer to a cheddar and white-cheese sauce than anything remotely blue, although considering how much was poured over the steak, that was probably a good thing— anything stronger would have rendered the meat inedible. The side vegetables, unfortunately, were just that. The sauteed potatoes weren’t bad: fluffy in the middle with seasoned, crispy skin, but they were covered in stalks of rosemary so big one might choke you. But the other veggies— baby corn, carrots and Jerusalem artichokes—were old, dehydrated and offcolor. After one forkful, we decided to leave them where they were and treat them as a garnish.
The Pesce Valentina (LE 199.90) was another large plate of protein smothered in sauce, served with the same questionable sides. It consisted of handfuls of white fish wrapped in pink, cooked salmon blanketed in an herb-heavy vegetable gravy that was tasty but overpowered the subtle flavor of the poor seafood swimming in it. Complementing the flaky pesce were small prawns arranged around the plate, which provided a mildly tangy, sweet counterpoint. Needless to say, we managed less than half of our mains before having them added to our growing mountain of take-away boxes.
Still, to the surprise of our waiter, we requested the dessert menu, which included the standard international array of cheesecake and apple tart. We went with the crème brûlée (LE 39.90) and two spoons. The sugar on top was perfectly caramelized but slightly too thick to achieve that satisfying cracking-throughthe-ice sensation of breaking into this sweet with your spoon. The custard underneath was serviceable but slightly bland and overcooked; it could have used more vanilla. After a few bites, we gave up and failed to finish this last course as well, though we declined to add it to our burgeoning doggy bag.
We paid the bill and finished off our drinks at a leisurely pace. It wasn’t until we were in a taxi far away from Zamalek that we realized we had forgotten our mound of leftovers. It was disappointing not to have steak and mushroom risotto to look forward to for lunch the next day, but we consoled ourselves by agreeing that we’d be back. In the end, the food ranged from decent to really quite good, and the Nile view makes it an especially great spot to take visiting out-of-towners. I’m looking forward to the next foreign friend who turns up in Egypt and provides me with an excuse to return Il Piccolo Mondo. It is a small world, after all.