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Balena Blu on Bree: Downtown Cape Town's new Italian seafood eatery

Balena Blu on Bree: Downtown Cape Town's new Italian seafood eatery

by Kim Maxwell
27 July 2022

Buon appetito! At Balena Blu, the new Italian seafood restaurant in the heart of Bree St, life is all about eating well.

“What can I offer you for lunch?” Antonio Di Savino asks, in English. Only Italian phrases have been exchanged with his wife during previous visits to our table, and now turning towards me, his tone has just become serious.

There is a simple explanation. Food is serious business for Italians. And Antonio’s concern is genuine: has his wife, Mary-Ann Calabrese, selected dishes well, to provide a satisfactory Balena Blu restaurant eating experience?

I assure him that her choices have been simple and excellent, so far. I’ve been chatting to Mary-Ann about the niche food business that started with the family’s move from Windhoek. Before I know it, Mary-Ann has arranged a few menu tasters. My laptop will need to make way ...

THE MOVE TO CAPE TOWN

The food-laced tale started with their daughter Valentina moving to Cape Town to study. But on hearing of a diet predominantly comprised of avo on toast, Mary-Ann was immediately dispatched to cook two weeks’ worth of nutritious freezer meals.

While in Cape Town, she looked around. Antonio was working in construction in Windhoek, and business was slow. The boutique hotel Mary-Ann owned there was also struggling. These factors, coupled with Antonio’s passion for quality Italian products that he couldn’t source in Namibia, meant the family had been considering a move to this South African food-friendly metro.

“Home has always been between Windhoek, Namibia, and Torino, Italy,” explained Mary-Ann. “With Namibia a bit quiet, we decided we needed to do something in Cape Town. The something became a fresh pasta and mozzarella factory, and then the something became a restaurant.” It was 2018 when they moved.

FRESH CHEESE AND PASTA

In the Mother City they soon created Ciao Ciao Mozzarella & Pasta, a brand of fresh cheese, pasta, Italian sauces and preserves. Initially the business operated from home, but later moved to a small factory in Paarden Eiland.

The range includes homemade tomato sauces, offering “the authentic flavours of home” explains Namibian-born Italian Mary-Ann, in reference to the adult years she spent with Antonio living in Torino. “Summers in Italy are interesting, you collect peas and beans and aubergines, so people are into making vegetable preserves,” said Mary-Ann. Ciao Ciao manufactures salami salsiccia, salami Milano and guanciale – cured pork cheek.

Fresh, tender mozzarella is another excellent Ciao Ciao product. At Balena Blu, it’s sliced and served as Caprese salad, with tomato and basil. But the king of fresh cheese is the creamiest round of burrata you’ll ever taste. A velvety ball of cow’s milk cream and curds inside a fresh mozzarella shell, it’s simply drizzled in extra-virgin olive oil, and served on leaves.

“Our products have a six-day shelf-life as we use no preservatives. Mozzarella in Italy is sold daily, it’s not meant to be stored. That’s why we only make cheese on order. We used to import the cultures but we’re now making these cheeses from local cow’s milk,” Mary-Ann continues, lapsing into tales about Italy’s various food regions and their products.

Pasta arrived next at the table: spinach and ricotta ravioli, cloaked in a chunky cherry tomato sauce quickly cooked from scratch. A simple offering, with just the right balance of flavour and acidity. Ciao Ciao pastas are all freshly made.

“For the restaurant, we blast-freeze the pasta, so there is quality control,” says Mary-Ann. “Wild Peacock distributes our ravioli (spinach/ricotta, lamb, prawn, butternut) and it’s tailor-made to order, then blast-frozen. We did 60 kilos of artichoke ravioli for a wine farm in Paarl recently. They served it with sage and butter, and a lot of Parmesan.” They produce 11 fresh pasta shapes, from spaghetti to penne, and gnocchi, too.


Balena Blu waiter, Max Emmanual.

ENTER BALENA BLU

Once the products were up and running, next came the restaurant, Mary-Ann explains in between mouthfuls. “We were customers of Pesce Azzurro Italian restaurant in Woodstock, and supplied them with pasta.

My husband fell in love with the restaurant because they specialised in seafood, and he’s obsessed with fish. If you could give him a choice of things to eat, fish would be on his top 10.” Right on cue, a bowl of charcoal-toned linguine al nero di sepia – squid-ink linguine – arrived, tossed in octopus ragu, and dotted with bits of tender calamari.

“Initially we merged with Pesce Azzurro: the idea was to bring the restaurant into town with bigger premises and turn the smaller Woodstock venue into a pizzeria.” But Covid hit, and the partnership fizzled out.

After some renovations, Balena Blu finally opened in Cape Town’s CBD in November 2021. Situated on the corner of lower Bree and Waterkant sts, the restaurant is long and spacious, with wood panelling and tiled floors in light tones. Concertina doors open to a sun-filled area on Waterkant. The name balena is thanks to Mary-Ann’s obsession with whales – a pillar inside is painted in sea murals.

“The heritage was Pesce Azzurro, but every Italian family has their own recipes. Let’s say our Balena Blu imprint comes from our passion for food,” explains Mary-Ann.

The Balena Blu menu also offers mussel dishes and prawns. Antonio, who has joined us at the table, elaborates: “I love fish; I will eat fish every day. The only stress that I have is that I always need to do a million things, so I cannot enjoy. When you do food, you cannot be in a hurry.”


Antonio Di Savino near a photograph of his mother making fresh pasta daily.

FAMILY FIRST

There was a final story to hear, as homemade limoncello shots were poured. It related to a photograph of a smiling Italian nonna that hangs in front of the restaurant. “Our passion for food came from the aunts and the moms,” says Mary-Ann. “Eating is family, it links you back to home.”

“My mother-in-law is now 80. She has had two strokes and can’t speak any more. But the first thing she does every day, is to get up to make herself fresh pasta.”

Antonio takes over the telling of the tale. “My mother never buys pasta. When we came to Namibia, we started to buy dried pasta. But on her visits, my mother would bring nothing in her suitcase but Italian flour to make fresh pasta.

“When we were looking for something that we were deprived of, we thought of flour. We started making pasta for everybody in Namibia, then a friend said: why Namibia, the market is so small? Why not Cape Town? Same thing with the mozzarella; we couldn’t find a decent mozzarella in Namibia. We decided to do it ourselves. Same thing with the salsiccia, the passata ... Most of the things we do in this restaurant now is made by us.”

  • Find Balena Blu at 61 Waterkant, corner of Bree and Waterkant sts, Cape Town. Tel 079 376 0511. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. Salsa is on offer on Saturday nights, where the Spanish dancing community push some tables aside and hit the dance floor.

IMAGES: Kim Maxwell

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Tags: Balena Blu Restaurant Bree Street Cape Town CBD Italian Restaurant Cape Town CBD Mary-Ann Calabrese CBD Restaurant Bree Street Seafood Restaurant Bree Street Italian Restaurant