It is evident that George Kounelakis has a passion for good food and people. That’s probably why he has been a restaurateur for nearly three decades and, in his words, still absolutely loving it.
Il Gusto, an Italian Mediterranean restaurant in Boksburg has been his baby for the past 17 years. Together with his wife Karolina and their young daughter Angelina, the restaurant is a family endeavour in every sense of the word.
“My relationship with food started when I was seven years old,” recalls George. “I used to come home from school start cooking my own meals. Sometimes it took hours from putting the pot on the stove to plating, but it was the genesis of a lifelong love affair.” Pasta, he says, is a particular favourite because “it is so incredible versatile.” The shapes, the sauces, the toppings. It really allows for creativity while serving up a hearty, tasty dish. “In fact, I love trying anything and cooking anything, whether it’s a braai or coming up with something new.”
Il Gusto’s menu is like holding up a mirror to George. It is a cheerful mix of pizzas, pastas, grills, specialty signature dishes and even sushi. Even better are the prices. Il Gusto is really affordable, and you don’t have to squeeze the life out of your wallet to share a good meal with family and friends.
There is an impressive wine list available with Beyerskloof Pinotage the star of the show. “It is an incredible, well-priced and tasty wine. A proudly South African cultivar and, of course, really good,” adds George.
Most of the time, patrons will always see George or Karolina on the floor, visiting tables, making acquaintance with new customers, or catching up with regulars. Their love for what they do is infectious, with wait staff equally as attentive without being intrusive.
The pandemic, of course, created a massive challenge for both George’s family and staff. “It has really been a challenge and the uncertainty of almost a year of decimated income for all of us is tough.”
He adds that “what also breaks my heart are the number of customers we see and speak to that have lost their jobs, lost loved ones and are going through very hard emotional and financial times. This pandemic has sown absolute destruction and the rebuilding of our country will be a mammoth task.” Yet, George remains optimistic, radiating hope.
The restaurant’s Trinchado starter is a must-try, served generously with Italian dipping bread; you can be forgiven for forgetting about the main course and ordering more for entrée and dessert. It is that good.
The carpaccio, made with Springbok fillet, is as pleasing to the eye as it is to the taste buds. Served with a tangy vinaigrette, capers, and parmesan shavings.
The menu is so diverse and choices aplenty that selecting a main course might take longer than the time it takes to prepare. The secret of a good pizza is in its base and the relationship between the toppings.
Here, the base is crispy, not too floury and the toppings not sparse at all. Sometimes chilies are just hot for hot’s sake, killing any possibility of tasting the rest of the dish. But the Mexicana pizza, although quite spicy, gives some heat but you can taste the rest of the meal. Also try one of the gourmet pizzas on offer like the TuttoGusto with bacon, Italian sausage, mushrooms, peppadews and olives or the seafood orgy Frutti di Mare with prawns, mussels, calamari, squid heads, crab bits and topped with a large prawn.
Pasta dishes range from the traditionalist bolognaise through to some interesting combinations. The Pasta di Georgee Part 2 is a melody of fillet strips in basil pesto, danish feta, jalapenos, olives and spring onion.
It’s rich, but it is really, really good. The Mafioso is a variation of bolognaise, creamed with a hint of jalapeno. If chicken is your cluck, try the Pollo la Favorita. It’s chicken breasts in a thick, creamy mushroom sauce.
There’s seafood aplenty on the menu and an extensive collection of sushi. Steaks with amazing sauces like their Papa-style cheese sauce with biltong, cheddar shavings and peppadews or Oom Truter’s Kleftiko, a variant on the traditional and named after the Beyerskloof proprietor. Lamb shank marinated in the legendary pinotage and slow roasted in a clay oven.
What’s great is that the dessert menu does not comprise of pre-made, wholesale and rubber-stamped standards. So many restaurants neglect sweets and opt for portioned and pre-fab cardboard-tasting bakes and tarts. “We make most desserts in-house,” says George, “with items like the Crepe Suzette, my personal favourite, only served seasonally.” However, the Belgian Waffle Tower is something to behold. Waffles, cream or ice-cream, decadent chocolate, and real maple syrup. It’s sharable, it’s huge and by Jupiter, as Asterix would say, it is worth driving to Il Gusto from anywhere.
Dining at Il Gusto is not just an eat-out. It’s really an experience and, as they say, one can really taste emotion in cooking. Here, it’s more than evident.