This column spends considerable time seeking out unusual dining experiences in Cairo; places that are particularly new, good, innovative or somehow unique. While this approach is fine–a constant array of fresh and unique dining experiences undoubtedly keeps life interesting–it is certainly not everything. Many times we just want to walk down the street and have solid dependable food in our own neighborhood.
For several months now, I’ve been a regular visitor to that part of Dokki between the Shooting Club and Mossadaq Street. Seeking a place I can easily walk for lunch, I arrived one day at the Cortigiano Italian restaurant along Michel Bachioum Street. Cortigiano, I am told, has a long, distinguished history in Cairo. Open for decades, it had begun to feel a bit worn at the edges, oozing past-its-prime charm. Newly reopened after a renovation, Cortigiano is back with a fresh face. It has even opened up additional branches–one each in Heliopolis, Maadi and Alexandria.
Cortigiano is a solid, decent place. The newly refurbished interior is welcoming, albeit plastered in retro-kitsch knick-knacks; the wall is full of antique bicycles, models of trains, various garden implements. It’s a family-friendly place–plenty of high chairs, separate smoking and non-smoking areas–and the friendly wait-staff don’t seem to mind if your kids run a bit out of control. Wonderfully cheesy 80s music wafts out of the speakers, playing all-time oozy favorites that I hadn’t heard in decades.
The menu provokes a mild sense of concern; it’s massive, and a lot of the selection is displayed in photos. There’s a multitude of salads, pizzas, pastas and meats on offer. I’ve grown wary of too big a menu. Any kitchen that can produce such an astounding array of dining options on a moment’s notice must be covering something up.
Some of what they serve is excellent. We had a heaping mound of salad with fresh chunks of veggies–such an enormous portion that two of us sharing a single plate could hardly make a dent. We followed this up with penne pomodoro, the sauce had a lovely fresh zest to it.
The only real disappointment was the chicken curry, though I must accept a piece of the blame for merely placing the order. This dish sums up everything that’s wrong with this type of cuisine: a restaurant in Egypt without being Egyptian; serving Italian food without staying true to Italian culinary traditions; making use of Indian spices in a cluttered, haphazard manner. In the end, it’s a bit of a mish-mash, neither here nor there; perfectly edible but ultimately disappointing. For dessert we had one hit and one miss; the crepes tasted like they came out of the fridge; the date pie was wonderful.
My biggest complaint with the place is not the quality of the food, it’s the portions. Cortigiano serves up massive heaps of food; the plates are oversized, and your dishes amply fill them. Accordingly, some of the clients, perhaps regulars, have a massive waist-line to show for it. This trend in restaurants, fueled, I must sadly confess, by American cuisine culture, strikes me as a bit tragic–shocking abundance in a land of scarcity; the promotion of dining habits almost guaranteed to end in obesity.
Cortigiano is certainly acceptable. While it’s not worth a detour, if you’re in the area it will do just fine. At a recent lunch, the place was relatively full, including a group of about 20 well-behaved youth, and the kitchen didn’t get too backed up. Not every meal out has to be an adventure. If you’re in the area, and are looking for a basic dependable meal, then Cortigiano could be the place to go.
Details: 44 Michel Bachioum St. open daily 1PM to 1AM. Lunch for two: under LE200. Tel: 19181. No alcohol; delivery available. Also branches in Maadi, Heliopolis and Alexandria.