Fine dining meets Italian cuisine at Forti Grill & Bar, where there is a commitment to creating honest food using high-quality ingredients. A fifth generation restaurateur and celebrated chef, Fortunato Mazzone’s food philosophy eschews pretension: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.
Fortunato (fondly known as Forti) is a man of many contrasts: a high-tech enthusiast who runs an old-school kitchen equipped with a pot of master stock; a qualified economist who has studied opera and law and a chef with no fear of expressing his ideals through his food. Though he is serious about his cooking, Forti prides himself on his “happy kitchen”. “You can taste the passion and happiness in my food,” he says. His restaurant mirrors these ostensible contradictions most beautifully.
“Half of the meals on my menu are made using only four to five ingredients. Sometimes my food is misunderstood, because in the fine dining environment people expect complicated dishes, whereas I for example enjoy a fantastic piece of grass-fed beef with duck fat roasted potatoes and just a knob of compound butter – for me, that’s a fine-dining experience. Not everyone understands this food philosophy.”
With a flawlessly blended fusion of food, wine, art and music the restaurant reflects Forti’s theatrical personality to a tee. Working closely with architectural firm Pattichides and Partners, he set out “to create tension between classic and modern”. Brickwork walls and Spanish ceramic stone flooring composite with brass strips sit comfortably alongside copper-coloured Curl Pendant lights from Cool Lighting and repurposed, recycled glass chandeliers by Stephen Pikus.
The bespoke furniture, designed by Mark Bakos, includes the ergonomically designed chairs that ensure a relaxing meal, while the white marble table tops add to the sophisticated airiness. The glass-walled wine cellar, with its gold anodised aluminium frame, doubles up as a private dining space for 20, while the modern abstract art by Carinda Appelgryn punctuates the decor with bright pops of colour, acting as a permanent, shifting gallery; If a piece is sold, the artist replaces it.
Forti’s love of beautiful design is evident in the special pieces peppered throughout the restaurant: A mint-green concourse condition 1974 P200 Sport Vespa is parked near the door; a Berkel 1898 slicer takes pride of place by the humidor, stocked with only the finest cigars from Arturo Fuente to Partagas; and the in-house butchery is filled with reconditioned 1940s Ferrari red OKTO equipment and an oak butcher block weighing 1000kg.
In the seamless contemporary kitchen there’s a state-of-the-art, smartphone-controlled oven, floors immaculately cleaned with steam and fridges that are electronically regulated. Le Creuset pots, pans and dishes of all sizes are lined up in bright rows of jelly-bean colours. The pasta is produced on a pasta line, prepared fresh à-la-minute and cooked to order. The ingredients stacked on the shelves are only the finest, from Morgenster extra virgin olive oil to Rougié duck fat and Pomilia Italian peeled tomatoes. The beef is organic, grass-fed meat supplied by Braeside, as is their chicken, lamb and pork. The fish is also sourced from an ethical producer who follows the WWF SASSI procurement guidelines, which help suppliers to make sustainable seafood choices.
The kitchen is manned with a staff of 20, among them three Culinary Springboks and a talented pastry chef, plus some “real vets”. Many of the long-time staff worked for Forti and his father, Giovanni, at their much-loved, multiple award-winning restaurant Ritrovo in Waterkloof, which the father-and-son team opened in 1996.
“We are very much like a family. I was in business with my father for 26 years before I opened this restaurant. It feels quite odd to be working without him. I’m very grateful to my father. I was brought up in this industry. I worked in the business all through school, all through varsity. So it’s in my blood and I love what I do.”
Family, Forti firmly believes, is the key to the Mazzone success. His father, who learnt the ropes from his family business in Italy, the Bar Fortunato and a guesthouse, came to South Africa in the Sixties. “My father has always been my greatest supporter,” says Forti. And in this food-loving family, it’s time-honoured meals around a table that bind them closer together.
“Every Sunday, we enjoy a typical Italian meal at the restaurant. This is a tradition that’s been going on for 30 years. The whole family congregates: my parents, my younger sisters, my daughter and son, and sometimes my ex-wife will join as well. It’s a generous, abundant meal. There’s always pasta, ragout, salads, platters of meat, prawns or fish and cheese afterwards.”
The family business BICCCS (the Waterkloof branch has been sold as a franchise but they retain Franschhoek in a partnership) supplies The One coffee and daily artisan bread to Forti Grill & Bar; Along with a classic Southern Italian ciabatta topped with herbs and coarse salt, called Pangiovanni after Forti’s father, Giovanni, who retired this year at the age of 74. Giovanni worked in the first wood-fired pizza restaurant in South Africa in the 60’s and founded the ground-breaking Giovanni’s Pizzeria in Sunnyside Pretoria in 1976.
Some of the recipes on Forti Grill & Bar menu have been in the family for decades. Since 1976 there is a dish on the menu called “Prawns of My Father”, which consists of prawns baked in the oven with champagne, garlic and butter, served with creamy Parmesan rice. Another one is “Lumaconi”, which is pasta shells stuffed with veal, spinach, ricotta and mushrooms and then baked under a Parmesan crust.
However, there are always new additions such as the crispy pork belly with pickled ginger. The menu is broken down into the beef cuts of the day; hors d’oeuvres; a selection of meat, fish, poultry and duck, plus two full pages of homemade pasta, tasty vegan dishes and a palate-teasing dessert section. Also on offer is the Italian Feast which is, essentially, the Mazzone family Sunday lunch and a popular five-course gastronomic menu. There are new specials daily for starters and mains.
Forti also produces a wine range called Nick & Forti, in collaboration with Saronsberg owner Nick van Huyssteen and talented winemaker Dewaldt Heyns. It began as a bit of light-hearted fun with only 900 bottles produced. Not surprisingly, the Nick & Forti Epicentre 2005 won the Old Mutual Trophy. Today they produce 22 000 bottles. The range consists of a white blend, Shiraz and Bordeaux-style blend.
Forti Grill & Bar has an extensive Winelist, which has something for every budget, sourced from eight different countries.
“I believe the wines are the best representatives of every cultivar in South Africa,” says Forti, who is a qualified sommelier. “We also carry some older more specialised wines and some of the so-called Unicorn Wines, like the Eben Sadie wines from the Swartland, which are only available to tiny select audiences.”
The South African-born chef, who loves to sing, travels with his father to Italy annually; It’s here after all, in Giovanni’s home town of Pietrastornina in the foothills of the Apennines, that the Mazzone family’s deep love of good, simple food was originally cultivated.
Forti is a member of the Academy of Chefs, the honour society of the SA Chefs Association, and holds the title Commandeur de Bordeaux, which is earned for services to the wines of the area of Bordeaux in France; and Chevalier of the Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne, which is similar, but for the Champagne region.
Forti’s Grill & Bar is situated in the Time Square Sun International Casino on the corner of Aramist and Corobay Street in Menlyn Maine, Pretoria. Open for lunch and dinner from Sunday to Thursday from 11h45 until 22h00 and Friday and Saturday from 11h45 until 24h00. On days when there are performances at the Arena they will close later to accommodate show goers.