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 Tiramisù, 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.