We headed over to Pepenero on its opening weekend to be the first to try their authentic Italian food and get the insider information from Chef Carlo Giovanni Iannotti...
Nestled on the first floor of one of Korba’s architecturally stunning buildings is the latest Italian sensation to hit the city, Pepenero; a place that is meant to encompass the authenticity of Italy in the heart of Cairo. The décor is a comfortable amalgam of upscale industrial, a touch of rustic, and streamlined modernity. Naked pipes snake up the walls and light bulbs encased in cheese grates hang from crates on the ceiling; thick twines of knotted rope are looped through wooden shelves and sleek black and white photos are scattered in artsy arrangements.
“People who come to Pepenero come to have a real Italian food experience in a restaurant,” head chef Carlo Giovanni Iannotti tell us as we take a seat in the sprawling terrace. “The concept is fresh food cooked in the moment - if you order lasagna I make the lasagna the minute you make the order; I don’t just have a portion in the freezer that I heat up.” The native of Southern Italy conceptualised the spot as a place where Italian authenticity could be recreated, everything from the vibe to the culinary integrity, insisting on using solely the freshest ingredients; a lot of which are procured directly form Italy – “for the pizza we use 100% buffalo mozzarella, for truffle oil we buy the entire truffle and take it from there,” – to making sure the traditional method of creating the dishes was the only way they were made. “Italian food is very simple, but you need a very high quality of the raw products. If they aren’t fresh the final result wont be good,” the chef explains. “[Founder] Mohamed Hanafi truly gave me the opportunity to make real Italian food in Cairo – not what foreigners think it is!”
Iannotti’s approach is not limited to the kitchen either; he wants the restaurant to feel like Italy; the homey atmosphere, the collaborative nature between chef and guest. He places importance on interacting with the guests; not only getting their feedback but consulting with them on what they feel like eating to begin with. “We are not restricted to the menu. In Italy the waiter doesn’t just come and give you the menu and leave, no its what do we want to eat today, what do you feel like.”
In the South of Italy, where Iannotti originates, cooking is a way of life. Born into the restaurant business, though he studied Economics, he fostered a love and talent for creating dishes just by mere virtue of his upbringing – “I’m lucky that I didn’t have to go to school to learn to cook – I made my first lasagna when I was seven.” When we were seven we were eating crayons and any foray in the kitchen ended with broken glass and Flinstones Band-Aids. Though he did not attend a typical culinary school, he dismisses them as incapable of truly teaching the trade. “Schools don’t teach you the real life of a chef. You learn in the kitchen – not just how to cook but how to problem solve, how to work under pressure.” His career has taken him all cross Europe, all the way to China, and he worked temporarily as the Executive Chef for two resorts in Sharm El Sheikh. He’s also the man behind the menus laden with creative cuisines that swept Sahel up in a storm of sensational food this summer at Lemon Tree & Co.’s two seaside venues in Marassi and Telal.
While he raves about food, the pizza arrives, light, fresh, coated in chunks of Buffalo mozzarella. There are times (and those times often follow a night of binge drinking) when you crave a cheese-laden thick, heavy, greasy pizza. And then you proceed to feel equally greasy and gross afterwards. And then there are times when you want to go out for a bite and you’re looking for something delicious, perfectly created, full of flavour and reminiscent of its original taste as opposed to the overly commercialised, grease-infused, exported version of it. This is the latter. “The dough has to ferment for 24 hours; it begins tiny and then it swells. That way the final result is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside,” Iannotti explains.
He freely credits the owners of Pepenero with giving him the culinary equivalent of artistic license and speaks with an unparalleled passion about his work; “for us in Italy cooking is not a job. It’s love. It’s fantasy.” You can practically see the marinara flowing through his veins.
We then get served a seafood risotto. Now, it’s hard to find a good risotto in Cairo, barring five star hotels where you bleed a fortune for a yes, delicious, but miniscule and overly priced mushroom risotto. We know this because we’ve been hunting for a good one for many, many moons now. We found it. We literally hit the gold mine of moist rice. The rice was richly soaked in flavour and the plate came complete with shrimps and a sizeable amount of mussels. We may or may not have devoured the plate in under four minutes because it was just that damn good.
Some veal pane (veal, not beef) and perfectly spiced potato cubes later, we were officially too stuffed to ever glance to ever entertain the prospect of eating again. Naturally, that didn’t last long when the plates of Tiramisu, Panna Cotta, and what is essentially a chocolate salami (no real salami involved). “We have a very small dessert menu – but there’s a reason for that,” Iannotti tells us. Each item is painstakingly perfect, the tiramisu basically tastes like love with its layers of coffee and cream, and real mascarpone, because Iannotti has no patience for any of that fake stuff. The Panna Cotta light, airy, vanilla-infused – the perfect post-huge-meal dessert for when you want something sweet but not overwhelming. And the chocolate salami is essentially a chocoholic’s dream come true.
We leave Pepereno thoroughly stuffed, mildly ashamed that we are capable of eating six dishes but not regretting a single solitary calorie.
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