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Italian Club looks East!

ZIMBABWE used to be renowned for its social clubs and organisations reflecting members’ backgrounds, ethnicity or interests.

Eating Out with Dusty Miller

There are active Portuguese clubs in Harare and Mutare; Greek Club in Mutare and Hellenic Cultural Centre in Eastlea, Harare.

Next door to Hellenics was Callies, mainly catering for Caledonians: people born in Scotland, of Scottish descent, who studied there or were just interested in things Scottish (and that didn’t preclude Scotch whisky!) Callies is now Motor Action Sports Club.

There were two German clubs in Harare and a Swiss Club at Cranborne. All have disappeared since Independence.

But the Italian Club (Circolo Italiano) at Strathaven, Harare, still thrives. For many years it’s been well known for really excellently cooked, nicely served, no nonsense, value for money Sunday lunches. At one stage these meals were patronised almost exclusively by local Italians, but now attract much broader support from the community.

From March, the Italian Club has offered the same grand value lunches, with kitchen open from noon until 2:30pm, but now operating Tuesdays to Sundays, which — as Michael Caine might have said: “Not a lot of people know about.” That’s a pity.

Coincidentally “my” lunch club, Greendale Good Food & Wine Appreciation Society, will have its monthly do there today; even more coincidentally the annual awards ceremony of the Association of Zimbabwean Travel Agents (Azta) was at the Italian Club on Saturday.

I was amazed at the talent and integrity of the club’s chefs on that glittering occasion, one of Harare’s few “must attend” functions, when for once they eschewed trademark pastas, seafood dishes, conventional roast and grilled meats; their cooking Looked East for the night!

The awards ceremony always has a colourful theme; participants are expected to join in the spirit of the occasion and dress accordingly.

Arabian Nights
This year it was a US$50 a head Arabian Nights spectacular, with –– let’s face it –– a usually rather Spartan club hall lavishly decorated from skirting board to ceiling as if it were a plutocratic pasha’s posh pavilion perched proudly next to a palm-shaded pool in a verdant oasis.

There were 30 major sponsors of the evening, one being Emirates (later voted International Airline of the Year by Azta members) who supplied masses of lovely Saudi Arabian dates to welcome guests on arrival, along with Arabian coffee or refreshingly simple Arab mint tea.

And while food was strictly halaal, there was nothing vaguely Islamic about drinks. A cash bar did a roaring trade all night and, again thanks to some of the sponsors, wonderful wines appeared as if by magic on each beautifully decorated table.

Generous portion of starters, to nibble before the main event, awaited guests as they sat with friends in the discreetly lit ballroom, one of the few in the country with a suspended sprung floor, beloved by dancers.

They included mini-kebabs, humus (chickpeas), baba ganoush (dip made from brinjal/eggplant/aubergine); abas bil hamad (lentils with lemon juice), naan bread, rotis and pita bread.

More than 300 guests were present, mainly in fancy dress (REPS costume hire must have made a fortune!); main course was a buffet with, sensibly, two separate serving points.

Buffets and Zimbabweans can be a disaster, because often the people at the head of the queues just flatten everything in sight, regardless of those behind, heaping plates so high not a single pea could be safely perched. Tail-enders often go hungry as a consequence of early birds’ gluttony!

But despite some worryingly Homer Simpson/Desperate Dan portions passing our table, there was more than enough food to go around.

Mains were: aromatic beef stew, Moroccan lamb stew (a tagine, really); Levantine chicken shawarma, fish tikka and vegetable biryani. Accompanying starches were a rather spicy and a less spicy traditional rice dishes with vegetables and raisins folded in, buttered new potatoes with parsley, curried lentils, couscous and roti.

Puddings were fruit kebabs with cinnamon syrup, basbousa (semolina cake), lavender ice-cream, baklava (in Turkish, umm Ali in Arabic) and more tea and coffee.

Entertainment included an Oriental disco, which rapidly became very Occidental when it was time to dance; gorgeous belly-dancers and a tattooed woman dancing with flaming torches. Candidly that worried me, when they whirled dangerously close to shimmering silk decor draped from the ceiling.

For routine Sunday lunches at the Italian Club I fairly recently enjoyed spaghetti, ravioli and lasagna (separately!) at US$7. Pasta is served the Italian way as a substantial starter course, but is often sufficient for most people as a main course, especially if they order the salad (the US$3 bowlful is enough for two, possibly three covers) and eat it with scrumptious still warm, crusty, crispy rolls and butter.

For the more hungry, in addition to or instead of pasta, there’s usually roast (typically beef or pork with traditional trimmings) at US12 or US$11 respectively. Half a grilled chicken is US$12; T-bone steaks are US$12, pork chops US$11 and hake fillets US$12.

Sicilian Angelo Savo was for 40 years club treasurer and is now in charge of kitchens which would not disgrace a major hotel. Recently he insisted I tried his grilled prawns: large, succulent jobs, served with properly cooked chips, crisp on the outside, floury within and piping hot, lemon wedges and much of the colourful salad I’d begun with (US$16.)

At that lunch, friends complained there were no gnocchi (Italian soft dumplings) on the menu. When they returned the next week, gnocchi were “on”!

Puddings are US$2 or US$3 a pop; typically tira misu, peach mousse, crème caramel or good ice-cream.

Italian Club, Strathaven, Harare. Opens lunch Tuesday-Sunday; suppers and other functions by arrangement. Tel 302610 or 0774 417-598 (Angelo). Eating indoors or out; smoking non-smoking. Local beers US$1,50; limited reasonably priced wine list; no corkage if you BYOB. Child and reasonably handicap friendly. Safe parking on site.

Our sister paper The Standard will publish a souvenir supplement on the Azta Awards at the Italian Club on Sunday October 6.

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