Tuesday, 25 March 2008
Spaghetti House, Tufnell Park
A few weeks ago I issued a challenge to the good food-loving people of the internet to find me a decent, mid-range Italian restaurant. I was just looking for somewhere sensible between the exemplary ingredients and stratospheric pricing of the River Café and the high street dross of Bella Pasta - I needed convincing that Italian restaurants are occasionally worth bothering with in London. So off the back of one particular recommendation (thanks Annemarie), I found myself travelling all the way up to Tufnell Park after work on Thursday to a little place called Spaghetti House. It's a bit of a local institution apparently; the chef, Enzo, has been here manning the stoves (and the phones when I called) for over 20 years and runs the place single-handedly - when he's ill or on holiday, it's closed. This is clearly not someone from the Gordon Ramsay school of restaurant management.
From the outside it looks like your average greasy spoon caff (out of interest, why are they called 'greasy spoon'? What on earth could you be eating with a spoon that was greasy? Suggestions please), inside the décor struck that fine balance between 'homely' and 'bonkers'. The laminated menu was tempting in its simplicity, but the list of specials appeared to go on and on and was scrawled in chalk in every available gap of wall space. Assorted paraphernalia dangled from the ceiling, a sign by the door said 'welcome' in 20 world languages, and just the other side of a tiki-bar façade there indeed was Enzo, working feverishly away amidst the noise and steam of the kitchen.
At such ludicrously low prices it would have been churlish of me not to try and sample as much as I could, so I ordered a starter and dessert, very unlike me. The home-made minestrone soup was hearty and huge, if a little bland, but who's complaining at £2 a pop. A friend pushed the boat out with a bruschetta at £3.50, which was much nicer, dressed with a lovely rich tomato salsa.
The roast duck main course was generous in flavour and portion, with a thick orangey sauce and nice fatty meat. It's not haute cuisine by any means, just boiled veg and roast potatoes with seared duck leg, but it was actually rather good, and not just because it cost £8. I did try a bit of my friend's broccoli pasta (£5) and yes, that was pretty good too. No better than you could make yourself, admittedly, but comforting and simple and - and this is worth repeating - £5 for a huge plate of food.
Ice cream also came in a gut-bursting portion size, as did a pleasant enough slab of cherry pie which could have done with a bit more warming through but, stuffed with gloopy fruit and sprinkled with sugar, didn't last long anyway.
So after moaning about the dearth of affordable decent Italian restaurants in London I appear to have found something of a rare commodity - a genuine restaurant bargain. To be fair, not every Londoner is likely to travel up to Tuffnel Park for a bruschetta but judging by the clientele on Thursday night, word probably doesn't need to travel much further than NW5 for every table to be taken. And on the subject of the clientele, I have never seen a more delightfully complete section of society in one restaurant - a table of septuagenarians, a young professional couple, cabbies, families, it felt almost contrived, like I was eating on the set of a soap opera.
I do have one complaint though. After the main courses were served, the waitress came over with a black pepper mill. Part of me wanted to wrestle it off her, but as I was enjoying the evening so much I waited patiently as she seasoned the plate in front of me. Unconventional and quirky in so many ways, I will allow Spaghetti House this one pretention. It doesn't seem to be doing it any harm.