Ethiopia is booming in many areas, none more so than in its embrace of the humble grain of durum wheat. Nestled in between traditional eateries, stores and banks on the main roads or hidden in tiny side streets, the Italian Restaurants provide an added dimension to the culinary delights of the city of Addis Ababa.
Of course pasta and Italian food is not new to Ethiopia; a legacy of the Occupation, the oldest restaurant in Addis opened in 1948. Located in the Piazza district, its doors are still open today and celebrities such as Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and US Presidents have eaten there.
Residents these days have a higher level of disposable income and as a consequence eating out has become more accessible to a wider population, therefore there is much competition for business. Seeking to rise to the top of the popularity stakes, some restaurant owners have marketed their own unique selling point (USP) to bring in business; cue the Makush Gallery on Bole Road.
Tesfaye Hiwet established Makush Gallery some sixteen years ago in collaboration with an Italian chef, who was also a family friend. At the time, restaurants for foreigners were few and far between in the city, and this venture provided somewhere for them to eat as well as an opening for local artists to display and sell their work. Over the years, the business has become very successful. They now manage over 70 artists, many of them from the Ale School of Art and Design as well as those who are self-taught.
Makush’s work with charities and NGOs has taken Ethiopian artists all over the world. Closer to home, the Restaurant is defined by the good quality and sheer variety of food on its menu. Walking into the Restaurant at lunchtime, the place is buzzing with activity. Waiters are seen dashing around delivering steaming plates of food, people laughing and chatting—clearly enjoying their experience and surroundings amongst the vibrant art work displayed on the walls.
They have fostered good relations with various tour companies since the inception and their clientele ranges from tourists, local workers, companies booking working lunches, ex-pats and officials, many of whom visit time and time again. One such patron is David Mulchi Panico, Ethiopia’s Honorary Consul to the Kingdom of Spain, who has dined here regularly during his visits to Ethiopia over the last seven years. Tucking into a delicious-looking appetizer he explains that as well as being interested in the art and artists (he was involved in facilitating an exhibition in Madrid), he continues to return because of the excellent menu, the homemade pasta and wonderful service.
It is true to say though that a meal at the Makush Gallery is likely to be above many city-dwellers’ budget; three courses plus drinks would cost at least 400 Birr. A more affordable option could be Pastag, a brand new Italian Restaurant in the Haya Hulet area near the Addis Hiwot Hospital.
Asasahegen Asefa is Pastag’s owner and chef, and his USP is the authenticity of his dishes. Trained as a chef in Italy, he was resident there for 13 years before bringing his expertise back to Ethiopia earlier this year. His restaurant has a cozy feel, indeed you would be fortunate to find a table during the lunchtime rush as there is only seating for around 25 people!
There is an open kitchen at the back where hungry workers can watch the food being prepared while they wait. Pastag’s specialty is the lasagna, with three different versions to choose from. Visiting the Restaurant before customers start to arrive, you will find the freshly-made specials sitting on the side ready for the day.
The menu itself is small but perfectly formed. Alongside the lasagna, pasta, and sides there are a selection of salads, of which the Insalata Formaggio (cheese salad) is a firm favorite. This is quite possibly because of the selection of genuine Italian cheese imported directly from Italy, which add authenticity to the taste of the dishes. Catering mainly for local office workers and ex-pats living in the area, a meal at Pastag is very reasonable with a main coming in at 150 Birr, a side between 30-50 Birr and a salad at 105 Birr.
Pastag’s dream is to one day own four or five restaurant chains in Addis; this aspiration brings us to the concept of a restaurant chain. Increasingly, as a country develops, foreign investment starts to appear in all areas of society and the impact of international chain restaurants changes the economy.
Of course, investment is essential, however, economic growth can only occur if the money remains in the country and benefits the local community. As large international chains move in, due to economies of scale and greater buying power, they can source products cheaply which means they can sell cheap and over time begin dominate the market. The inevitable result is that local businesses begin to fold as they can’t compete.
Starting a chain of restaurants is a logical consequence for a successful sole trader and, as such, the ‘home grown’ chains should be supported. These business owners are more deeply rooted in the society around them, and are likely to purchase ingredients and services from within the community as opposed to sourcing the majority of their products abroad. In this way, the investment stays within the local economy. One such local chain is Bella Pasta and Pizza.
Matias Beza started his business at home, cooking a variety of cuisines for people in his local area. The feedback on the Italian food was so positive that he decided to specialize, and opened his first Bella seven years ago. It was so successful that a second restaurant was opened in Bole four years later.
Speaking to the Bole manager, Melese, he explains that their USP is providing quality food at an affordable price; and everything apart from the spaghetti and penne pasta is locally sourced. The tagliatelle and sauces are homemade offsite and delivered to the restaurant each morning and then the food is cooked to order onsite.
Their aspiration is for people when they think of Italian food to think “Bella”, and their slogan is “When you are in Bella, you are family”. There is a welcoming atmosphere as soon as you walk in and the staff greets you in a friendly and courteous manner.
The decor is in the European style with pictures of Italian landmarks on the wall, and lunchtimes will find the place packed with locals of all ages, as well as the odd tourists. Chatting to a couple of students who attend the local Medical College, they say that they visit quite often for lunch as “The food is awesome!”
Every day there are different specials and their ‘Combo’ meals are popular. The Combo with Lasagna costs 166 Birr and their signature Bella sauce with pasta around 155 Birr. It appears that Bella have managed the balance of quality and affordability effectively as they will soon be opening a third restaurant.
So why do restaurant owners decide to open Italian restaurants and why are they so popular? It could be argued that Italian food is now firmly part of the culinary landscape, in Addis at least, illustrated by the sheer amount of successful outlets available. In a growing culture of eating out that is both affordable and enjoyable, it seems that a visit to a favorite Italian is now very much part of modern life.
Ed.’s Note: Elizabeth Mooney is a volunteer at The Reporter.
Contributed by Elizabeth Mooney