“Italians are not just
‘pizza, pasta, mafia’”

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Interview with Elena Zichella Dalla Cia, Pane e Vino – Part 1

Tucked away from the tourist area, in one of the oldest parts of Stellenbosch, is a hidden gem on what is de facto the shortest wine route. Here you will find the delightful, authentic Italian restaurant – Pane e Vino. Luckily for the Champagne in Africa team, it is a gentle stroll around the corner from our offices in the Old Mill to Bosman’s Crossing. The unfortunate caveat is that our waistlines may require a bit of extra walking!

We interviewed Elena, part owner and cook (she insists she’s not a chef), with interjections from her adoring husband George and his charming father Giorgio.

Your accent is unusual?

I’m an Italian import! I arrived here 21 years ago, and I love it.

Although my family is Italian, I was born in Singapore. My father worked for Alitalia and so we travelled around a lot. I was a jet setter child, she laughs. I have travelled widely because of my parents and my job before I came here, so my accent is a bit of a mix.

My parents went to South Africa in the 70’s with Alitalia and fell in love with Stellenbosch. What’s not to love? It has the feel of Tuscany, with the mountains, the big sky, and the beauty, but it’s Africa. What a magical combination.

My father retired and was bored, so he came back to South Africa on a visit. He returned with pictures of houses and told my mother that he’s going back, and he hopes she’ll join him! My mother was a teacher and had to finish the academic year, so he went ahead and found a home in Stellenbosch. He had met the Dalla Cia family previously, so it was easy to settle here.

Ah! So, you and George Dalla Cia were an arranged marriage!

She laughs again, (something they do easily as a couple) well my father first met George as a young boy whom he used to buy ice creams for, so I don’t think he saw him as a future son in law!

You didn’t join your parents at that point?

No, I stayed in Milan. I had a passion for fashion. I used to sew clothes for pocket money as a child and fashion became my career, even though I studied economics at university – largely to mollify my parents who were worried I would be sewing for a living.

I began my fashion career with Malo Cashmere in Florence, which at the time was a fashion hub ahead of Milan. (The lack of a large enough airport changed that – Milan stole the show, so to speak). In 1998, I joined Louis Vuitton. It was a difficult culture fit, although I spoke French, there was an assumption in Europe that Italians were “pizza, pasta, mafia”! I’m not mafia, she winks.

I lived the Champagne life. Lots of travel and lots of Veuve Clicquot. I even got to take part in a team building where we harvested grapes at Veuve Clicquot. The challenge was to fill the most crates with grapes and no leaves – my team won!

How on earth does a European fashion jet setter end up running a restaurant in Stellenbosch?

Along with sewing, I learned to cook as a child. My mother wasn’t really interested in everyday cooking, so as one of three daughters, I stepped into that role. Living in Florence for most of my childhood, I got to play with local, fresh ingredients. I had a good sense of taste and what flavours I was looking for.

My interest continued and I was fortunate to date a boy whose mother is an excellent cook. Also, his father loved to go to restaurants, and he would invite his children’s partners. This wasn’t the norm for an Italian family. Restaurants were for occasions like granny’s birthday, and it was usually at lunchtime. I was exposed to Tuscan cuisine and lovely home cooked food as a result, but I am completely self-taught. What you eat here, are my own recipes.

One of the restaurants that inspired me was Trattoria Sostanza Troia. When we started Pane e Vino, I wanted the same traditional thick white crockery that they use. It must be all about the food – the textures and flavour – not the prettiness of the crockery. I also chose to use kitchen chairs because it makes people feel that they are sitting in mama’s kitchen.

What made you decide to live in South Africa?

I just knew deep down that I did not want to settle in Italy. When I resigned from Louis Vuitton, my boss at the time commented that he had always felt I would leave. My family was in beautiful Stellenbosch and my crazy lifestyle was just not sustainable; I would spend 20 nights a month in a hotel.

I took a contract job at Parmalat, which became a permanent position in marketing. Shortly after I arrived, George’s parents invited me to dinner. George and I were the only young people at the table, so we started to talk. He offered to show me around, probably just to be polite. We dated for two years yet it was my boss who asked me if I was going to stay and marry George. He obviously knew something I didn’t.

George

I was gaga! It was love at first sight for me and the offer to show her around was simply strategy… “my butterfly collection”!

George was interested in distilling grappa as well as selling the Dalla Cia wines. In 2006 a property in Bosman’s Crossing became available, which was large enough to have a distillery and offer wine tastings. Where we are sitting now was an old loading bay. In March we opened Pane e Vino, which as the name suggests was supposed to be a low-key place to have a bite to eat while tasting wine.

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The Champagne in Africa team support enjoying life and the responsible consumption of alcoholic beverages. Alcoholic beverages are not for persons under the age of 18. Please remember to drink responsibly.