Olivo, a fairly new pizza place at the bottom of the New President Hotel in Zamalek, was recommended to us by a friend who’s Italian and a great cook. She said it’s very good, but very expensive.
We almost missed the entrance because it looks like a service door. It wasn’t trying to get our attention — it probably knows that it’s customers are not passersby, but coming on a recommendation, either because they’re hotel clients or by friends.
The space inside is small and comfortably laid out. There is no confusion or unnecessary traveling or objects cutting the line of sight. The traditional Italian pizza oven is visible in an open kitchen that takes up a quarter of the space, yet the cooking smell is tightly contained.
The bar on the other side of the room looks a bit crazy: A lot funny objects, shapes and colors, which could maybe a nice thing to look at when you’re drunk. The turquoise color of the wood sides of the bar and of the cushioned bar stools reminded Andeel of posh Zamalek Sisi supporters, and the loud, bad paintings on the wall reminded him of people who work in ads. The music is a medley of pop music, quite bad but at an unintrusive volume.
The waiter was friendly but wouldn’t let us sit where we wanted, and the negotiation was slightly awkward. We ended up at a relatively high bar-level table. It wasn’t very comfortable for Andeel, but Jenifer didn’t mind it. But maybe this style table is better if you’re there for drinks with a big group of friends.
The food menu is very minimal and straightforward — a promising sign — and the drinks menu long, detailed and loaded with alcohol. There are nine pizzas (LE65-85), three salads and three desserts (all of which center around lemon sorbet), and that’s it.
Jenifer ordered a caprese salad. Arranged on a long, squarish plate were four chunks of buffalo mozarella and four quarters of tomatoes on a bed of lettuce, and drizzled with a bit of pesto and sundried tomatoes. It was nice — especially the cheese — but probably not much better than Left Bank’s more basil-y version.
Andeel ordered a napolitana pizza. The waiter mistook it for something else, and when a meaty pizza arrived Andeel — a vegetarian — tried to explain to him that he got the order wrong, but he wasn’t totally cool about it. There was uncomfortable eye contact for few minutes afterward, which made Andeel feel gloomy. But when the correct order arrived — it didn’t take long — the relationship returned to a positive area.
The pizza was the best thing about the restaurant, and we would even say that it’s the best pizza we’ve ever eaten in Cairo — by a long shot.
It looked very simple. The dough was wide in circumference but very thin. The anchovies and capers were laid out randomly on top but in a peaceful way. You could sense the human touch in the way the tomato sauce was spread on the pizza. There were no bright colors or extras. Everything was quiet and confident — it didn’t seem like it was trying too hard to impress us with its look. This made Andeel trust it and expect it to be bold and tasty.
Thin pizzas only started becoming culturally accepted in Egypt very recently, Andeel thinks: The majority of Egyptians prefer a pizza settled on a huge infrastructure of bread. There’s even a thing called balady pizza which is a cross between Italian pizza and Egyptian savory fateer. Thin pizzas in places like Maison Thomas or Pizza Mia were supposed to be the posh choice of “true” pizza fanatics, but we believe Olivo is going to push the standards to a new level of thinness, just like the iPhone 6.
The super-thin dough makes more room for the flavors on top.
The tomato sauce alone becomes very pronounced and detailed when it’s not interrupted by that much flour. You can feel the garlic in it, and how carefully calculated it is, and the time it spent on the low flame before it went to the oven was perfect: not too burnt and not too raw. It was subtly sweet.
The cheese was also polite and cooperative, with the anchovies there was no confusion or chaos. Jenifer said that a napolitana pizza can often be too salty, but this one seemed aware of that common mistake and the ways of avoiding it.
Andeel then had a single Nespresso and Jenifer had the lemon sorbet with limoncello. The Nespresso was nice, and the sorbet was fine — again, very unflashy and basically presented — with its tingly aftertaste, although the limoncello was hard to detect.
There weren’t too many people in the restaurant, which made it possible to look across the room out of the window and enjoy the magical Friday Zamalek moment. Andeel is afraid that the way the restaurant is stretching function-wise out in different directions might make it a confused spot for many purposes: It could be a nice quiet bar, a crazy hangout place, a drinking pub in a very dry city, a dinner restaurant, a breakfast place or any other thing.
Andeel likes how confident this place feels and how it’s not trying too hard to impress. But he feels that in relation to the mediocre market it’s going to get overrated, crowded and noisy, just like all the other similar joints. Jenifer thinks it’s certainly not cheap, but will definitely be worth it on a special occasion if you’re in the mood for pizza.
When we got home, we realized that we’d been charged for the slightly more expensive pizza that we didn’t order, but we didn’t mind much because the difference was only LE10.
Olivo is at 20 Taha Hussein Street, inside the New President Hotel.