Susan Wong indulges in authentic Italian dishes at Mambo Italia and discovers new favourites, ultimately falling in love with their artisan gelato which comes in 16 enticing flavours.
At the spacious covered outdoor patio which feels like a bit of a secret nook at Mambo Italia’s Garden City Mall location, I hide my face in a plate of Grilled Prawns. It’s heading towards 2:00pm and the restaurant is quickly filling-up with children happily playing in the water park – their screams barely audible thanks to a glass fence dotted by lush ferns that encloses the first floor al fresco space.
Around me are tables, chairs and light fixtures crafted from approximately 40 reclaimed canoes from Watamu. Every piece is uniquely built by a skilled carpenter – who I’m told has sadly sold his business – to perfectly merge the old weathered wood with the new, colourful metal hairpin legs. A long bar that can comfortably sit eight to ten anchors the outdoor patio with Edison-style light bulbs hanging from the ends of repurposed canoes.
During the brief moments when I would take a break from the prawns, I catch myself thinking about dessert – artisan gelato – thanks to my earlier tour of the restaurant, which ended with me staring-up in awe at a gigantic bag of Belgian chocolate in the pantry. The best thing about dessert is that you have to wait. After all, some things in life are worth waiting for.
I lower my head back towards the deliciously moist prawns and the rest of our starters; not before I notice the doting elderly gentleman with two young grandchildren, a young couple making plans for their evening, and a large family group of ten tucking into their dishes at a communal table. The restaurant is almost full with the Saturday afternoon rush.
Our starters included Zucchini Fries, Smoked Sailfish, Grilled Prawns and Fish Balls. The Zucchini Fries surprisingly hit all the salty, crispy and savoury notes that deep-fried and potato-loving diehards usually crave. Definitely more virtuous than traditional French Fries (because Nairobi is suffering from a heat wave and it’s swimsuit season), the Zucchini Fries arrived coated with a light and well-seasoned batter, tender not soggy, and fried to golden perfection.
The Smoked Sailfish tasted just like the ones I so fondly enjoyed during trips to the Kenyan coast and the Fish Balls, I imagine, must be a favourite among children given the crispy breadcrumb crust. The winner was the prawns, three of them, jumbo in size, grilled with the shells and heads still on, giving the delicate meat a ton of flavour that was accentuated with a lightly charred smokiness and lifted with a squeeze of fresh lemon. The tender Grilled Prawns burst with a decisive snap in my mouth, all with a spicy, slightly sweet, caramelized and charred crisp shell.
“Are you enjoying your meal?” George, our mild-mannered waiter dressed in a pressed blue shirt with red trim, discreetly asked with a smile you couldn’t fake. Much like the restaurant’s atmosphere, the service was warm and passionate. George had been serving Mambo Italia customers since the flagship Lavington location opened nearly a year and seven months ago.
There is the classic Pepperoni Pizza with spicy salami, with plenty of melted mozzarella nicely sauced on a thin crisp crust. A pizza with hot and spicy minced beef, red onions, green peppers, jalapenos, mozzarella and tomato sauce – called Mafioso – satiated chili and carnivorous cravings. Finally the Vegan Sun surprised the meat-eaters at the table with bold flavours and was every bit satisfying from the black olive spread, artichoke chunks, green peppers, chili flakes, roasted garlic and red onion.
For dessert there were a handful of options, but there was really just one: artisan gelato. With about 16 flavours of gelato and sorbets, with some only available as special editions, all of which would make a perfect ending to a rich and flavour-packed meal. There’s a perfectly balanced Chocolate Chili Cinnamon which delights your palate in three stages: first, the dark chocolate coats your mouth in a semi-dry roasted and rich finish, then the chili leaves your taste buds tingling with excitement, and finally the classic combination of cinnamon and chocolate that always leaves you wanting more. There’s also a killer Ndali Vanilla that features the aromatic vanilla beans from Uganda, where reportedly the plantation air smells like earth after rain with a twist of an unknown, dangerous aphrodisiac.
After gelato, everything else is utterly bittersweet. No wonder desserts are meant to be eaten last.