It is a milestone year for one of South Africa’s restaurant industry legends. Super-nonna-chef Luciana Righi of Assaggi, Tre Nonni and Amarcord fame celebrated her 80th birthday this month and 40 years since she started working in this country and becoming an icon to many South African diners.

The effervescent Righi arrived in this country in 1982 with her chef husband and started working at Il Fico in Joburg’s CBD. What was meant to be a working holiday for this self-taught supercook turned into a brilliant career and Righi is one of the renowned and respected Italians (think of the late Giovanni Mazzone at Ritrovo Restaurant and Paolantonio Mariano from Mastrantonio) who transformed this country’s culinary culture.

Righi’s first restaurant was Trattoria La Terraza in Southbroom and some of her first clients from this hugely successful venture were on hand to celebrate her 80th birthday in style.

Then followed Tre Nonni, Assaggi, Il Tartufo, Amarcord and a sojourn back in Italy. The energetic and young-at-heart Righi still works at Craighall’s popular Dolci Café owned by her daughter Chef Jackie Righi-Boyd and son-in-law Clayton Boyd.

When Luciana was critically ill with COVID in June last year, Jackie and Clayton decided then and there, that if she recovered, this auspicious occasion would be a milestone celebration of an incredible life and career.

Righi is proud of the fact that her cooking style hasn’t changed much in the past four decades: “I come from Ravenna in Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy. It is known as the food basket of Italy because of the Po river running through it. Parmigiano Reggiano, Balsamic vinegar and Prosciutto di Parma all come from the area. Quality ingredients are important to me. I am very traditional and I stick to what I know which is the food that I grew up with.”

Signature dishes include her brie and asparagus lasagna and a heavenly dessert Dolci Della Nonna first created by Righi’s own grandmother Ida (a portrait of Ida that used to hang in her previous restaurants can now be seen on the wall at Dolci Café along with grandfather Venturi and uncle Adolfo.)

Recounts Righi: “I invented the lasagne dish 20 years ago after catering a party for one of my children and finding a large brie left over. It was an instant hit and I haven’t been able to take it off the menu ever since.”

The homemade melt-in-the-mouth pasta layers interspersed with just the right amount of asparagus, béchamel and brie also made a perfect dish for some of her clientele who could not eat the regular lasagna as the ragu sauce contained pork.

Dolci Della Nonna is a heavenly mix of Amaretto biscuits, zabaglione and cream, dark chocolate and chopped pecan nuts with some Sicilian Marsala added.

So why does Luciana – who once hosted Oprah Winfrey at Assaggi – believe she has been so successful: “I don’t compromise on quality. My daughter tells me that I am an A-type personality and pedantic so things have to be done just so. I am on top of it all the time ensuring that everything that comes out the kitchen is as close to perfection as possible. I am a people’s person. In a way customers are visiting ‘my home’ so you want to get know them.”

What did her COVID experience teach her: “I don’t think I am a very retrospective person. I am a post-war child – life has to carry on. However, I think I have always lived life to its full and I wanted to celebrate this milestone with all those who helped me on this wonderful journey and made my life so rich.”

Good news for all her loyal customers is that she has no intention of retiring.

“I love what I do – feeding people and making them happy. I am privileged to be carrying on the traditions of those who went before me and watching my own daughter make her mark in the South African culinary scene. La vita è bella. Life is beautiful.”

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