Think glob­ally, eat lo­cally at Il Pic­colo Mondo

Business monthly (Egypt) - - INSIDE - BY ED­MUND BOWER

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.

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