Monday, 16 February 2009

Donna Margherita, Battersea - Revisited!

One of the drawbacks of the food blog format - along, to be fair, with any newspaper or magazine restaurant review - is that your public opinion of a restaurant is made once and preserved forever. I have made a conscious decision to never write about the same place twice, the idea being that however lucky or unlucky or misinformed I was on the first visit, a restaurant would only usually have one chance to impress the average punter and a first visit is as close as I'm going to get to a level playing field. That, and because I pay for all the meals out of my own pocket, I just don't have the budget to work my way around the entire menu before forming an opinion.

Therefore, it's not surprising that on occasion I do happen across either a mediocre restaurant that for whatever reason serves an accidental good meal the night of my visit, or of course an otherwise reliably good restaurant that has an off night. What is strange is that looking back over the last two years' worth of reviews how few there are whose scores, with the benefit of hindsight and repeat visits, I would change. Maybe an extra point added or docked here and there - I was a bit mean to Can Roca perhaps, and Laxeiro has disappointed on repeat visits - but overall my system - completely by accident you understand - kind of works. However, there is one review in particular that I can't allow to stay on my conscience. I'm not too big to admit that, back in November of 2007, I was completely wrong about Donna Margherita in Battersea.

It was on viewing the pictures I took of the pizzas we were served on that night that the owner, Gabriele Vitale, knew something was wrong. "Those big black bubbles of burned pizza base," he explained after he invited me back for a second try last week, "they are wrong. There was something wrong with the dough that night - I think it hadn't risen properly. A good pizza dough should have a nice even covering of small black dots. And of course, those mussels should not have been thrown on the pizza until right at the very end. Whoever was in the kitchen that night wasn't up to scratch." I agreed, after a commendably persistent PR campaign from Gabriele, to revisit Donna Margherita and perhaps learn a bit about Neapolitan cuisine in the process.

A cold antipasti selection of roast mushrooms, grilled aubergine, courgette and superb artichoke hearts were served covered in good olive oil and tasted very authentic. Warm antipasti consisted of terracotta bowls of half-and-half aubergine parmigiana and homemade meatballs in tomato sauce and a kind of dark lentil stew and courgettes and bacon. All superb comfort food, full of flavour and served in that traditional Trattoria style.

I was reliably informed that Neapolitan (that is, Campania) cuisine is generally more robust and contains a greater use of seafood than that from Emilia-Romagna. Now that they mentioned it, it occurred to me that we didn't have a single seafood or fish dish the whole weekend in Bologna. Here we were served two stunning plates of seafood - a medley of calamari rings, octopus tentacles and fried prawns, all perfectly fresh and cooked very well, and a very authentic tasting cold octopus salad. Gabriele told me that his English customers are a bit squeamish about the octopus and despite it ticking every box in terms of authenticity and taste, he doesn't shift much of it. Well, more fool them I say.

I will also reserve a special mention for the traditional Neapolitan salad of cherry tomatoes, rocket and buffalo mozzarella, which contained the juiciest, creamiest mozzarella I've ever tasted - including that from Bologna. Gabriele ships it in from Napoli every week and seasons it lightly before serving, and I can't imagine there being a better mozzarella served anywhere else in Europe.

All this was of course just the first act before the arrival of the main courses, starting with a deceptively simple margherita pizza. Made, needless to say, all in house, using Italian ingredients, it was a fine example of its kind and had an expertly balanced measure of the different ingredients, from the sharp tomato sauce to the rich stringy cheese. And, of course, a perfectly risen pizza dough displaying the correct smattering of small black dots. We were also shown the "correct" (I will need third-party verification on this of course, but for now I'm taking Gabriele's word for it) way to eat a Neapolitan pizza - first cutting the pizza into quarters, and then "rolling" each slice into a tube so that all the rich juices are trapped inside while you shovel it into your mouth. Using your hands, naturally.

We were then served two pasta dishes. One, a seafood spaghetti with clams and prawns and heaven knows what else, was as rich and wonderful as any plate of pasta I've ever eaten. The spaghetti was coated in a kind of seafood stock which made it silky in the mouth and the baked cherry tomatoes added another burst of flavour. Amazing stuff.

Also in the pasta department was a very attractive plate of large rigatoni served with a spinach-like vegetable along with various other herbs. Again, homemade egg pasta cooked al-dente and a rich and silky sauce.

Finally, a dense, nutty chocolate cake from Capri served with vanilla ice-cream, and a homemade Tiramis├╣, which tipped us over from "dangerously stuffed" to "potential hospital admission". But what a way to go.

And so, in a first for Cheese and Biscuits, I am going to re-review a restaurant. I will keep the original post up for historical reasons so that I can't be accused of complete revisionism, but I think its only fair that independent restaurants with a passion for authentic, honest food get all the breaks they can get. Because God knows there are enough people in London that will walk past Donna Margherita on the way to the Pizza Express just down the road, and miss out on one of the finest Italian restaurants in the capital. My original review, made on an off-night albeit with the best of intentions, is wrong. And fortunately, this is one wrong I'm happy and able to put right.


Photos courtesey of Helen Graves at Food Stories. Many thanks.


Anonymous said...

Has my lawyer been on the phone yet? ;) Anyway, a totally fair review I agree, it was a great night. that mozz was amazing, and the pizza was pretty damn fine too. I actually really enjoyed that octopus salad, so much so that I've had a bit of a craving for it recently, might have to re-create that one.

Oliver Thring said...

It looks absolutely fantastic, Chris - what a terrific place. I confess to eating pizza that way: turning it into a kind of wrap variant somehow makes it all the more delicious.

Chris Pople said...

Helen: I saw a greek woman buying a huge load of octopus tentacles from the new fishmonger at Whole Foods a couple of weeks ago. So that's perhaps a lead for you.

Also, I'm reliably informed by Gabriele himself that the seafood spaghetti actually didn't contain any fish stock - it was just the juices from the genuine Sicilian prawns that coated the pasta. Amazing stuff.

Unknown said...

Interesting point as to whether a re-review is necessary. As a self funded blogger you really do generally have to take a one off approach but it would be great to be able to visit a restaurant three times prior to reviewing like the professionals.

PS - I have eaten a few pizzas in Naples and never seen the rolling technique but it does sound like a sensible and tasty idea so maybe I was just at the wrong places!

Gregory said...

Love the work.

Aside from the fact I am fan of Donna Margherita, there is no problem re-reviewing a venue. Granted you should not dine 3 times before publishing a review but after time why not go back ??

Afterall people change, chefs change, menus change and so do their restaurants. So why shouldn't your reveiw evolve with them .... check Andy Haler who often updates his reveiws.


Anonymous said...

ooh ooh! I am a little daunted but I am definitely going to give it a try - cheers for the tip off.

Hollow Legs said...

that big rigatoni dish was my favourite dish of the evening. so tasty.

Anonymous said...

Late to the party here, but in my opinion there is no way you should retract your original opinions. If a restaurant screws up, then they screw up.
Would I (or anyone else) get invited back if I had a bad meal?

Chris Pople said...

Matt - To be fair, I have not deleted my original post, which will remain as a permanent record of my first visit. But I am glad I went back and if Donna Margherita had a bad evening the first time(which is what appears to have happened) then I see no harm in changing my opinion.

Anonymous said...

Now you just need to go back a third time when they don't know you're going and see what happens, I guess.
Or I'll go and then tell/let you off.

Chris Pople said...

Matt: An excellent idea! I'm sure you won't be disappointed. Let me know how it goes :)

Anonymous said...

i`m gleed that you came back !!!
we should organize soon the pizza night!!!
let me know when your friend`s are available and we will do this fantastik pizza night!!!!!
lot of love to all of you!!!

Gabriele!!! said...

hi Gregory thank you it looks like you do know how restaurant business works and I guessed no many other are aware of the difficulty of running a restaurant in this present world!
to answer matt well matt if people will tell as they opinion more often other then always answer (very good fantastic 95% of people always says that)in that case we will look things different!! well in the case of the right motivation the answer is yes but when you judge a product with out knowing it then there is a discussion because when same people makes comment regarding an authentic way of making pizza napoletana with out having an idea of it then you try to educate them about it!!!
every body have been going on and on about Franco manca pizza well i went there my self and a friend we had a beer and 2 pizza 19 quid well yes good pizza but for my opinion to heavy and it takes a long time to digest were donna marghgerita`s pizza is much light and more as we do in the pizzeria in Naples if you want few names were to go in Naples well kip in touch and not be afraid to ask!!
and also Avery body has been going on and on of of much chip Franco manca was well 19 quid for 2 margheritas and 2 beers as a price is very average you will not pay more in my restaurant if you will have 2 margheritas and 2 beers peraphs we have service on it but is a discretionary but we have over 20 pizzas on the menu and a grate restaurant dishes and a disant wine list with 12 people working in it
and a recession mode market to fight off course you try to make chriss happy that he makes comment on restaurant and publish them on the net!! if I could I will call all the people that they have been disappointed (that if I would make my restaurant very crowded any moment that we are in it but that it would not be possible and I can only try to make up with the blog that I can get in touch with like I did with criss by the way i hope you well and i`m still wetting for you to organize a pizza night come on let as know when this is possible that we are going to give a grate deal if you do that!!!

Kavey said...

I am not one of those who feels that a blogger has to go back more than once before writing a review - as, with the exception of invited reviews (where the restaurants knows the blogger is coming) a single visit, anonymously is representative of what any regular punter might get.

If the restaurant has an off night, that's bad luck for them, but may encourage them to improve their consistency and QA. As a potential customer, I don't want to go somewhere that is fabulous on it's good nights but crap on other occasions.

So I think it's valid to post reviews on single visits.

BUT I also think it's of interest to post again if you revisit and your experience is different...

Things change...