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Dario's Cafe

For some stalwart coffee-drinkers and pseudo-philosophers, a day without caffeine is a day wasted. Ordinarily, a regular cappuccino may be found without the need to boycott all other establishments under the same postal code. But for many loyal aficionados, it’s Dario’s Café or nothing at all.

Note: Food With A Story has included these details on behalf of Dario's Cafe. If you are from Dario's Cafe please contact us to get profiled and/or have the listing transferred.

Hout Bay, Cape Town, Western Cape


Enzo Ferrari and Dario Mustarelli have a great deal in common. To begin with, they’re both Italian, and, unsurprisingly, their last names end in ‘i’. Both served in the Italian Armed Forces, though some decades apart, and together, they share a fierce love of motorsports. Both are entrepreneurs, resourceful, enterprising and passionate about their respective ventures, whether Formula One or coffeeworks.  Ferrari, known as ‘il Commendatore’, or ‘the Commander’, was notoriously prickly. He never bothered to get to know his drivers, and, despite his monumental success, was hardly thought of very fondly by his colleagues and juniors. Dario, affectionately and gastronomically known as ‘Mustardelli’, prefers the simple life. “I once made twelve different coffees in less than ten minutes. Second in the Western Cape,” he says, chuffed. Although granted a far less formidable epithet than that of his motor-racing counterpart, Dario ‘Dario’s’ Mustarelli is no less triumphant. Powered by the life-blood that is coffee and camaraderie, his vocation as a restaurateur and host has certainly propelled him into the fast lane. His squad is made up of his many faithful patrons, and these he knows well. 

Infused with the salty ocean air and the lazy knowledge that to get anywhere within a twenty kilometre radius requires a bit of unworthy effort, Sundays in Hout Bay, 7806, are spells of blissful idleness, like playing bingo or reclining back reading the weekend newspaper. Fondly known by its citizens (and a little disparagingly by hear-saying outsiders) as the Cape’s very own unofficial Republic, the sheltered suburb is blissfully removed from the arterial highways and sprawling urban development of Greater Cape Town. Most importantly, it offers its quirky inhabitants an ideal climate in which to pursue la dolce far niente, or the pleasure of doing nothing at all. 


On this particular Sunday even the Republic’s largest producer of cappuccino grandes had taken to resting on the seventh day. It was as if a universal switch had been flipped in the control room, leaving Dario’s at a decaffeinated standstill. However, Dario Mustarelli, owner and maestro of the eponymous coffee bar on Hout Bay’s Victoria Road, was on his hands and knees, covered in timber chaff. As with all operations at the popular haunt, Dario was in the midst of it -- and on this occasion, dripping with elbow grease. For the Italian ex-military man born on Gauteng’s East Rand, DIY is hardly a foreign undertaking. 

While the espresso machine took a twenty-four hour hiatus, refurbishments at Dario’s Cafe were well underway. It had only been a few hours, but already a following had gathered, tapping on the windows like thirsty bees out of honey.

“You got a TV in there?” a passing motorcyclist calls up to me from the pavement. He is in need of refreshment and a brief glimpse at the score.

I have to break the bad news.

“There is one, but it’s not on right now. Dario’s is closed for today, unfortunately.” 

It seems strange to say this, as Sunday mornings at Dario’s Café usually enjoy a better attendance than the 8am church service. Forced to seek refreshment elsewhere, he starts up his engine and goes on his way. 

For some stalwart coffee-drinkers and pseudo-philosophers, a day without caffeine is a day wasted. Ordinarily, a regular cappuccino may be found without the need to boycott all other establishments under the same postal code. But for many loyal aficionados, it’s Dario’s Café or nothing at all.

“We’ll be back up and running first thing tomorrow,” Dario assures the brigade of die-hards trickling in -- and then out again. I couldn’t help but notice the lost, orphaned looks in their eyes when they were told to come back for their fix. I imagined they would return home, crestfallen, fat-lipped and a little shaky. A lull had surely fallen over the Republic that day, but for me, it was the perfect opportunity to get to know the man behind the winning formula.


A local celebrity of sorts, Dario lends his name not only his beloved coffee house, but to every cup of steaming Tomeucci he serves. Like other great men, his identity is strongly connected to his life’s work. Scores of luminaries before him have assigned their titles to their trades, dignifying years of noble work to a single name. Consider Samuel Colt’s revolver, or the bothersome slip that is accredited to Sigmund Freud. Even Enzo Ferrari, that darn narcissist, emblazoned his magnum opus on his own terms.  Dario Mustarelli, however, is not one to be conceited. His daily life is peopled by an extended family of brothers and sisters, staunch admirers and satisfied customers, all of whom are one and the same. His dual nationality is best pictured as the Italian tricolour planted firmly in South African soil.  

“My blood is Italian but my mentality is South African,” he asserts. “I’m full of s**t, stubborn, passionate – it shows in the coffee. Italians know everything and they talk a lot. But I’m a listener, hey.”


While Dario is neither a somnambulist nor a chronic insomniac, it is easy to tell that he is an early riser. Perhaps sixteen months of military service has something to do with that. After spending his early years in the town of Edenvale, Gauteng, he retraced his roots back to Italy and joined the Italian Infantry. At the tender age of twenty, Dario Mustarelli was in need of a survival strategy. While he may have sidestepped the gridlock politics of the corporate world, Dario, like any rookie caught at the bottom of a social hierarchy, entertained humble beginnings as the corporal coffee runner. Fortunately for the young soldier, a talent for coffee-making kept him in good favour with his superiors.

“It’s how I learned the trade,” he explains matter-of-factly.


A six-month stint in London didn’t serve him well. Dario recalls his experience rather brusquely.  “Hated it. People were so dull there.” Working at a small cafe just a coin’s throw from Rome’s Trevi Fountain brought our young patriot closer to his roots. As if by the luck of the Fountain, Dario would soon meet his wife Rossella, who worked next door, and extend his stay in Italy by several years. He returned to his native South Africa in 2005 with Rossella at his side, establishing himself under a new name – his own. As is the case with many successful men, Dario affectionately praises his wife for keeping it all together, both at the front of house and behind the scenes. In a business where friendship and fraternity are the greatest deal-breakers, true hospitality has no fixed price-tag. “It’s not about the make. It’s about the making,” he says of his craft.


Despite his own sure-fire celebrity, Dario has played host to a repertoire of notable regulars. World Champion surfer Jordy Smith’s frequent visits have earned him an honorary place on the Dario’s menu, immortalized by a breakfast created in his name. Other personalities such electronica duo Goldfish, endurance runner Ryan Sandes and Western Province Rugby’s number fifteen, Anton van Zyl, have all been spotted in Dario’s infectious company. The famous may flock there, but Dario does not reserve a VIP booth for his better-known patrons. The only crème de la crème is to be found on top of the cafe’s patent cappuccinos, and every customer, hotshot or not, gets the same one, served with an enthusiastic high-five from the man himself. Simply put, if you’re a friend of Dario, you’re a friend of everybody else.

Dario is hardly tight-lipped about his penchant for favouritism. In fact, he’s quite candid about it, and equally as proud to reciprocate his patrons’ loyalty. “I’ll always give a table to the regular customer first. Without a doubt.” His playful banter with his patrons seems to flow impromptu, but for Dario, “remembering names and faces, keeping up the conversation, smiling all the time” pose some of the greatest on-the-job challenges. Every now and then he exchanges a lively salutation with a passing car. Every third passerby seems to know him. But all families have their quandaries. “It can be tricky being friends with my customers,” he admits. “In a regular coffee shop where things are kept formal, you can apologize with ‘Sorry sir’. Here, serving a bad cup of coffee may cause a temporary rift.”

One glance at the walls is proof that Dario Mustarelli enjoys a colourful heritage, typified by an appreciation for great moments in both photography and motorsport. He dreams of one day owning a Ferrari 458 Italia; perhaps after clocking fifty thousand of his famous cappuccinos he might be able to park one outside. Of his two greatest role models, only one is Italian. “They’re my emblems,” he says, gesturing to a portrait of Marlon Brando as The Godfather, and to another framed print depicting his one-time acquaintance, Nelson Mandela. Dario met him in Rome while still a solider – the photograph hangs proudly above the espresso counter, an ever-present testament to a man’s love for his country – or in Dario’s case, countries.

While the average two-hour coffee date in South Africa is a far lengthier affair than that of the ‘expresso’ culture of Italy, Dario Mustarelli keeps them coming. His shop, a “social institution” by his own description, is an undeniable part of local consciousness.

In his formative years, Dario Mustarelli enjoys an enduring popularity that far surpasses that of Enzo Ferrari and his purring machines. Dario presides over his household like a far less assuming Don Vito Corleone, without the dinner jacket. His mantra is simple: “Work hard. Help someone when you can. Take a risk. What’s that expression again? No risk, no reward – or something like that.”




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