When Giovanni Mazzone passed away last week, it was with great sorrow that I received the sad news. But it also reminded me of the warmth and gentle smile of someone who very easily crept into your heart.
Paging through stories I had written through the years about the Mazzone father (Giovanni) and son (Forti) team, emphasizes the fact that any of their restaurants but especially Ritrovo (because my focus had been especially at that time), is as much about family and friends as it is about food.
Once you got to know these two very special men, you understood what their restaurants through the years meant to them. As Forti so poignantly wrote on social media the day of his dad’s death, Giovanni died like he lived – surrounded by his family.
That word is writ large in their world and it was always clear for everyone to see. One of my best invites was always to join the post-lunch meal in the deli-side of Ritrovo with the whole family and some staff gathered around the table.
It was a Giovanni institution which he explained was his solution when he realised he had to do something practical about cementing family life when his children were young.
This is what I wrote in the past: Visit the restaurant on any day in the early afternoon and the Mazzone clan and colleagues are gathered around a table enjoying their late lunch. Large bowls of pasta or some of their moreish pizzas are scattered on the table and in-between the patter, the diners are tucking in before they start preparing for the evening rush.
What started as a single restaurant (Giovanni’s brainchild) in Sunnyside a few decades ago has been turned into a small empire by an inspired son.
But that is only one of his legacies. Think of Giovanni the restaurateur and if you are led by your stomach you will remember that he is the bread specialist and to this day, it is his recipe that plays such a huge role in any of their restaurants or coffee bars.
That and of course the magnificent ice cream that was served by all the many BICCCS stores from here to Cape Town and in Franschhoek. And Forti is always very proud to point to his heritage. We were lucky enough to be close to his dad’s birth town in Naples while Forti and his family were doing their annual Italian trek.
He picked us up in Naples and took us to the quaint mountain village of Giovanni’s roots, Pietrastornina and it was with great pride he introduced us to his dad’s family and showed off the region and the secret of his Italian flair.
It was a day filled with family, friends and the Mazzone warmth and bonhomie. And that started with Giovanni who in contrast with his flamboyant son, was quiet and always gentle with a twinkle in his eye. You could slip into a chair, he would bring a coffee and chat about his life and his world. But always he would make sure that you were content and had everything you needed. His was a quiet yet impactful presence.
Right up to the end, Forti made sure he was kept busy where he knows what to do and how to be. Brooklyn Bridge’s BICCCS was specially created for his fabulous father and more often than not, that was where you would find his son during the day. These two were inseparable and like father like son, Forti was given the foundation to create what is there today. And rumours are swirling about new ventures!
Pretoria is a city that is known for its family restaurants and by that I mean there are quite a few of our most popular restaurants, which have established themselves because of the family running the establishment.
They love what they are doing, are usually on the premises and the standard has been established and maintained because of dedication and determination.
This is what it meant to those of us visiting the their premises. Nowhere was that more evident than in the Mazzone restaurants through the years.:
“It’s catching, this enthusiastic approach to life which is the ethos that runs through the restaurant. The staff has been empowered to take ownership and it shows from the moment you enter.
That is the secret Mazzone ingredient. It’s tough to invent or teach. You either have it or you don’t and you find it here in abundance. It’s what makes the Ritrovo (and now Forti’s Grill) ritual such a compulsive one.
It’s not just about serving good food in a gracious venue. It’s about the ambience and the attention that makes dining out at this Italian home-from-home such an embracing experience.”
And still Forti says it best: “I, who had the privilege of working with him for 35 years, only knows that he entered life a simple man. He left life calmly and with a simple beauty. But in between. He became an icon. But always part of the people. He served kings. Presidents. Ministers. Captains of industry. But always spoke to a humble sculler with the same respect and warm twinkle in his eyes. Pomposity never impressed him. He had a beautiful way with everyone and they gave it back in ladles. He was a soft touch for those in need. He could never say no. And his grandchildren adored him. And he adored them more.”
For those of us who knew him, the silver fox will be missed but his memory won’t fade. About that – with his gentle soul – he made sure.