The newly opened establishment is home to what might be the truest Italian food in town...
Through the raggedy streets of Downtown Cairo, tucked in a tight alleyway down from Bostan Street, lies one of the most authentic restaurants to grace the capital.
As I approached the small corner it hugs, and looked down the alley strewn with little chairs and tables draped in chequered tablecloths, I suddenly felt a sense of unfamiliarity. The whole thing seemed very out of place. Only on the medieval streets of Europe’s cities had I seen such a modest yet charming sight. Close to the corner, down a couple of steps, were two sliding wooden doors. Some effort was required to open them; I almost thought the place was closed. Once I did, I was abruptly transported to a place that could only exist in Italy. A couple of men, one wearing a beret and smoking a cigar, were sitting and chatting in fluent Italian. They looked to me with a welcoming smile and immediately switched to Egyptian Arabic, and extended the old-school hospitality that comes with it.
The man in the beret was Salah El Qady, the founder of CaiRoma, which opened just under a year ago. It was perhaps the most authentic, close-to-home Italian restaurant in Cairo I had ever dined in, and the reason as to why it was is an interesting story.
Salah has spent most of his life living and travelling through Europe, and eventually settled in Rome where his two sons, Mahmoud and Khaled (who also work at CaiRoma) were born and raised. They own and currently still run their own restaurant in the Italian capital, where they learned all the ins and outs of the globally renowned cuisine. “I simply love food,” Salah says while taking a draw from his cigar. “I love to cook. It’s a passion for me, not a business. I didn’t open this place for money. I opened it out of my love for the craft, as every restaurant should be!”.
Salah’s philosophy towards dining harkens back to an age long gone which was pushed out by the onset of franchising and corporate restaurants. “Serving food to customers should be like serving food in a household and a family setting”, and while sitting in CaiRoma, whether in its cosy interior or its romantic outdoor sitting area, that’s certainly the vibe I felt.
What worked greatly as an appetiser was one of their oriental dishes which incorporated a delicate touch of Italia. The Mumbar, served on a bed of rocket and bell peppers, was just the right amount of chewy and soft. The rice was well cooked and its seasoning was on point; not too soggy and not too overwhelming on the senses. It was the ideal appetiser to slowly ease into what was to come in the mains - enough to kill the usual impatience-induced hunger pains I always get just before dinner is about to be served, yet still kept me longing for far more of what was yet to come out the kitchen.
CaiRoma serves twelve different types of pizza. I figured that the most accurate way to judge the overall quality of this place, was to assess the quality of the Margherita - simple, traditional, and difficult to get wrong, despite the many pizzerias around Cairo that still struggle with it. The dough was thin, as expected of Italian pizza, yet deceptively filling. The cheese and the sauce were incredibly flavoursome, and filled up every crevice of my sinuses from the moment I held the slice up to my face, all the way to the glowing aftertaste. The only complaint I could make was that it was a little on the oily side, but every other component of the pizza more than made up for it. A sprinkling of rocket in the middle added a light aromatic touch.
The Spaghetti Bolognese was the next household Italian dish I went for. After that impeccable pizza, I was quite excited to try their rendition of the world-renowned pasta-dish. Cooked just right, with a generous amount of minced meat and Bolognese sauce with a sprinkling of grated cheese on top, sitting comfortably in a circle of rocket leaves. Nothing about this spaghetti was flat or left the senses asking for more. The sauce was a good mix of watery and creamy which didn’t overwhelm the taste of the spaghetti itself, and the minced meat and grated cheese added a satisfying thickness and texture. Every ingredient was full of flavour and distinguishable. Undoubtedly, it was the best plate of spaghetti I ever had in Cairo.
The true Italian experience at CaiRoma owes a lot to the fact that most of its ingredients actually come from the boot-shaped country, including but not limited to the pasta, cheese, sauce, and even the meat. The exquisite quality of these ingredients vividly shone through every bite I took.
Grilled steak was the choice for the Piatti Principali. It came drenched in a jaw-droppingly delicious and rich mushroom sauce, along with an assortment of vegetables and delicately fried potato chips. The cut was just the right size, and not too lean yet not too fatty. The outside of the steak was prudently seared so as not to burn an inch of it. The knife cut through the meat effortlessly to reveal a perfectly medium rare interior. The texture was flawless and none of the steak’s essential juices were lost in the preparation process. The marination may have skimped a little on the salt, yet it was easily remedied when I just sprinkled a little more on it. I can safely include CaiRoma among the few places in the capital that serves great steak.
Founder Salah El Qady and his son.
After I painfully struggled to finish those last few pieces, and my plates were taken away, I didn’t feel the urge to leave immediately whatsoever. The charm of this place compelled me to just sit and admire the simplicity of the setting, while it was sitting in the midst of the grand architecture of Downtown Cairo, something which is completely lost on most of the city’s more mainstream spots. I then found Mahmoud bringing me a shot of espresso, made from a batch of Lavazza they personally brought from Rome. “That’s the good stuff,” Mahmoud said. “They don’t export the best espresso to Egypt, so we bring what is sold in Italy ourselves.” When I asked him what he thought about the espresso that’s roasted and ground here in Egypt, he immediately wrote it off as “foul sudani”, Arabic for peanuts, the cheapest type of beans that can be bought on the market here.
“Here in Egypt, most people just want to come to a restaurant, eat, pay, then leave immediately. My place isn’t just about food. It’s a place to come sit, enjoy the atmosphere, the setting, have a drink and a chat with your friends and family. It’s meant to be an enjoyable time out.”
And that’s what CaiRoma certainly was for me, a place to escape the commercialism and artificiality of Cairo, a place to appreciate the timeless elegance of Downtown, a place to enjoy a dying brand of Egyptian hospitality, with a little bit of Italy, just for good measure.
Address: 19 Youssef El Gendy Street, Bab El Louq, Downtown
You can check out their Facebook page here.
Photography by Seif Mansour.