Last Friday my French housemate and I went to eat lunch at Osteria Tarantino, the tiniest Italian restaurant in Cape Town, seating no more than 32 pax inside and outside. We had both wanted to try it, based on word of mouth, but were disappointed with our experience, and found it to be exceptionally expensive. I question whether any of the dishes are freshly made for diners.

My friend had made the reservation, and we were told to arrive at 13h00. The wife of Osteria Tarantino owner Enrico Tarantino sat at a table at the entrance, and ticked us off a reservation list. We could choose any table we liked. We chose one near the glass panel, looking onto a plastic flower decorated burglar bar window of a neighbouring building. We had heard that the restaurant was tiny, and hence it is difficult to make a reservation, yet not all the tables were occupied on the day of our lunch. I found the decor to be very basic and ‘home-made’, yet not homely, with a combination of raw brick and wood-clad walls, reception desk, and tables made from wooden slats. By contrast, the chairs were black moulded plastic with wooden legs, far more modern than the rest of the decor. Three menu and beverage boards are neatly written, one even decorated, and hang on the wall, the sum total of the decor. Another smaller board with pasta offers is on a table as one enters, which means that half of the restaurant patrons do not see it. 

On our table was a bottle of Altevrede olive oil from the Karoo, a product of one of the most regular patrons of the restaurant we were told by Enrico’s son Jonathan, a bottle of imported Italian balsamic vinegar Crema Balsamico Di Aceto Balsaco Di Modena ICP, Himalayan salt and black pepper grinders, all placed on an old-looking Constantia-image placemat. A side plate, a cheap white serviette, Fortis cutlery, a Coca Cola branded (!) water glass, and a wine glass completed the table ‘decor’. 

Our drinks order was taken, a bottle of tap water served in a beautiful glass bottle, with slices of lemon on the side. We had to request a refill, and poured our own water. No proactive assistance was offered in respect of the menu items, nor were we told which menu items were not available, only being told on ordering that the veal and mushroom dish was not available, the fault of it having sold out the evening before, with a comment that we should have been there the previous evening had we wanted to eat it! I noticed that the entry price to most dishes at the Osteria is R140, whether it be a starter or a main course, very expensive for what was offered!  Bread arrived after we asked for it twice, a ciabatta.

I ordered a dish called Burrata, and it was dominated by a ball of Burrata mozzarella, with thin slices of Parma ham, and a handful of cherry tomatoes and an equal number of sun-dried tomatoes (R140). The Burrata had been lightly drizzled with olive oil and seasoned. My dish was a plating reflection, and not one of the restaurant/chef cooking skill.  Whilst I had the mozzarella and tomato on my plate, I could not help think of basil, and hence asked Jonathan, the very amenable server, for some fresh basil. I had to wait quite a while for it, and asked a second time. Enrico abruptly told us that they have no fresh basil, as it is in the dishes already! Bizarre! Worse still was that underneath my Burrata was rocket, my least favourite herb.

Veal meatballs was the choice of my friend, three served in a tomato mozzarella sauce in a pan (R140), a childhood memory of a dish made by her Italian grandmother, and lived up to its Italian heritage. Yet my friend had seen the same dish on the restaurant website with five meatballs. Other starter options were Antipasta Della Casa (a platter of cold meats, olives, mozzarella and Gorgonzola, at R160); Buffalo Mozzarella with rocket and tomatoes (R120) – why no basil I wondered; Tuscan cigars made from Parma Ham, straciatella, and rocket (R140); Burrata Vegetarian at R140; Salame & Parmiggiano (R110); Vitolo Tonnato (R140), and Italian Salad (R75). 

The Veal and mushrooms, when available costs R160; Saltimbocca costs R180; Gnocchi Gorgonzola R130; and Bucatini Amaterciana R130 – Enrico’s description of this dish was too fast for me to record it! The 4Ps dish is served with Pappardella, and includes four ingredients starting with a P, hence the name of the dish: pancetta, porcini, parmigiano, and peperonchino, costing R130; and the 4RPs is served with Ravioli of spinach and ricotta, together with the four Ps.

While we were deciding on which dishes to order, Enrico came to our table to answer some questions. On asking (no piece of information from him is spontaneous, everything must be asked), he told us that the restaurant is three years old, and that he loves cooking. He was previously the South Africa Manager for Alitalia airline. He seemed very impatient with his answers, rattling everything off. He saw my book, and asked who I was writing for, but seemed disinterested in my reply. Half an hour after our arrival, I noticed three staff members arriving in their civvies, changing in a room to which the door was opposite our table, and then disappearing downstairs into the kitchen area. It seemed bizarre to have staff walk through the restaurant, and to arrive after all the booked restaurant patrons had arrived. We overheard Enrico apologise to another table about the time it took for their three dishes to be served, blaming the late arrival of his staff for it. We surmised that he was under stress due to his staff being late, and hence was so short with us in his answers.  

We enquired about wine by the glass prices, and were quoted R55 per glass of Morgenster Sauvignon Blanc 2015 and for the Merlot 2015.

But the dessert order shocked us the most. I ordered Tiramisu (R55) made with Amatetto, my absolute favourite, and I was told that I would not have time to wait for it to defrost… as it was frozen! Then we were told that the Cassata (R55), the vanilla ice cream (R20), the Ferrero Rocher ice cream (R35), and the chocolate truffles (R60) were not made in the restaurant. Yet the Tiramisu was presented soon after this conversation, not the neatest presentation, and some near-frozen sections deeper inside. My friend cancelled her Truffle order. I explained to Jonathan how I would like my dry cappuccino, and he made it perfectly with Hausbrandt coffee. 

The bill was written in an old-fashioned style invoice book, the name of the payer requested as we arrived by both Enrico and Jonathan.

The absence of basil in the restaurant kitchen, the frozen Tiramisu, as well as the bulk of the desserts coming from elsewhere were a massive disappointment, telling me that the dishes are prepared outside of restaurant hours, and could be frozen and defrosted as per diner orders. There was no music until half an hour after our arrival, with Andrea Boccelli singing opera favourites. Disturbing was Enrico’s wife taking booking calls on a phone ringtone sounding like an old-fashioned telephone, at full volume, for us all to hear. But the worst part of our experience was meeting the temperamental Enrico, a total contrast to his lovely gentle son.

Osteria Tarantino, 125 A Waterkant Street, De Waterkant, Cape Town. Cell 076 505 1771. Facebook. Monday – Saturday. 

Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chris_Ulmenstein