Kenya’s passion for Italian food stretches far wider than the coastal town of Malindi, commonly known as Kenya’s “Little Italy.” There are glimmers of great Italian options within Nairobi, and more specifically, even in the bustling Central Business District (CBD). New entrants and even those that have been serving Italian dishes long before Italian eateries began popping-up throughout the city, like Roberto’s Restaurant located in Laico Regency, continue to celebrate Italian cuisine.
Inspired by dining in the beautiful outdoors, Roberto’s really has nothing al fresco about it except for a large glass roof, a water fountain, and plenty of indoor shrubbery. Like the stereotypical decor of Italian restaurants in Hollywood films, Roberto’s ambiance: the standard image of chequered table cloths, grapevines, statues, heavy wooden furniture, muted lighting, and powerful Italian opera playing in the background – was less than welcoming. Some would define it as tacky, and others would rather use the polite phrase – “traditional in need of a pick-me-up.” To be fair, it’s hard to generalize, and nor should we. Be it a trattoria or a ristorante, Italian eateries come as diverse as the imagination of its owners. What you’re likely to find in Nairobi’s Italian eateries is great atmosphere and interesting odds and ends that kick-start great conversation, even if it’s a chosen repertoire of traditional and retro flare like Roberto’s.
The menu reads like the ambiance: less than an adventure. Familiar Italian specialties dot the menu, ensuring a famished guest will be able to order in confidence. There was the Beef Carpaccio (Kshs 1,150) that arrived with a mound of fresh micro greens and reduced balsamic – refreshing and shaved perfectly thin – a safe choice. The Calamari Fritti (Kshs 1,150) proved to be a disappointing starter with soggy beer batter that refused to crisp, likely from the oozing water content of the calamari rings marinated with paprika. Though worth a mention, the accompanying dip, a hybrid cocktail sauce with herbs, garlic and gerkins, was addictively good.
There was the deliciously rich Tortellini Ricotta alla Spinach (Kshs 650), plump with its savoury filling. The little black dress of pasta and Roberto’s specialty, Cabonara (Kshs 1,150), was a dream for bacon aficiandos. Rendered until all of its smoky essence laced the creaminess, the pasta was perfectly cooked until al dente and each strand blanketed with just the right amount of sauce. There was the aromatic Grilled Lamb Chops with Mint Jus (Kshs 1,250), which arrived delicately plated and its meat soft and supple.
With more than thirteen pizza options, I’m already looking forward to my next visit. Other items on the menu I’ve fantasized over is the Coteletta of shallow fried veal with bread crumbs and parmesan, and perhaps even the unconventional parmesan and black peppercorn ice cream. If it were not for the refreshing and well-balanced Lemon Basil Sorbet (Kshs 400), the desserts that followed would’ve been unmemorable, especially since the Carrot Cake (Kshs 400) was dry.
Aside from the near faultless Carbonara, what was memorable was Roberto’s attentive and homely service. Phillip was an absolute pleasure and with more than 8 years with the establishment, no wonder this seasoned veteran carried himself, conversed and served with grace and an unmatched quiet confidence.
If you’re an Italian cuisine lover and so happen to be in the CBD, next time, give Roberto’s Restaurant a try – you may just be surprised.