Wednesday, 19 May 2010
It's been a long, long time since I've had an Italian meal as good as the one I was served at Zucca last night. Years, in fact. One of the many benefits of running a food blog is that all of my significant meals are documented and time stamped in obsessive detail, and so I can therefore reveal that the last Italian meal I ate in London that I really thought was worthy of the price paid was all the way back in April 2008, at Zafferano in Belgravia. The difference at Zafferano, however, was that those two delicious but teeny courses, no alcohol and tap water came to £40 a head - quality, in Belgravia, comes at a price. Not so in Bermondsey - look at these numbers:
Not a starter over £4, no mains over £13, and a sumptuous list of seasonal Italian ingredients that are enough to make your head spin. All good meals start with a good menu, and this one read like a dream - smoked eel, rabbit, sea bream, halibut, octopus, it was enough to make me want to order all of it, but decided a more sensible option was to share three antipasti, a bowl of pasta and a main between the two of us.
The only dish I wasn't head over heels in love with was the 'Zucca' fritti - fried pumpkin sticks, which although competently fried and with a light enough batter, just weren't interesting enough to sustain more than a couple of mouthfuls without feeling slightly queasy. I'm quite willing to admit this may just be a personal aversion to deep-fried, battered vegetables (I'm not too keen on tempura either) and my friend quite liked them, so they were probably fine. Buffalo mozzarella and radicchio though, was fantastic - fluffy, fresh mozzarella, seasoned and drizzled with excellent oil, sat on top of a layer of bitter grilled radicchio, producing addictive texture and flavour contrasts.
Even better was a rabbit, pancetta and hazelnut salad, where each element of this superficially simple dish was prepared to absolute perfection. Crunchy, freshly-toasted hazelnuts hid amongst beautifully dressed rocket and endive leaves, and topped with pieces of the most unbelievably juicy rabbit meat. Star of the show, though, were tiny crispy slivers of pancetta, which seasoned the dish and added that all-important 'porkiness'. I'm still slightly stunned that my favourite dish in any restaurant was a salad, but believe me, this was no ordinary salad.
That the asparagus fettucine didn't quite live up to the galactic heights of the rabbit salad is not much of a criticism. Fresh al-dente pasta and dainty strips of asparagus still made a hugely enjoyable plate of food, but by this time I had been spoiled by that amazing pancetta and was craving it like a drug. It is true, as any Sichuan restaurant will tell you, that there aren't many things that can't be improved by the addition of pork.
The veal chop at Zucca is fast becoming their signature dish, and is remarkable not only for its tender flesh and zingy lemon dressing but also for its value - to serve this large chunk of veal (what amounted in fact to a veal T-bone) on a generous bed of perfectly seasoned spinach for less than £13 is an absolute steal. I wonder what it would have been like with some pancetta on top? It's almost too wonderful to think about.
Even the desserts impressed. A lemon tart was as lemony and tarty as you'd want, with a nice firm pastry, and a panacotta was flavoured with some kind of fruit we were told was related to the apricot. It tasted like apricot. It was nice.
So then, the gauntlet has been thrown. From this moment on, it is no longer acceptable to charge £10 for a bowl of spaghetti in tomato sauce, £5 for some greasy microwaved mushrooms or £17 for cheap steak in mass-produced black pepper sauce. Likewise, we also no longer have to pay £40+ a head for excellent, fresh Italian produce cooked with care and served with a smile. Zucca is two fingers up to any cynical restaurateur who ever thought that making a quick buck out of marking up dirt-cheap ingredients and flogging it to clueless tourists was all that London deserved, or anyone else who thought that just because you're serving something better than Bella Pasta you could charge people as much as you like. I have seen the way and its name is Zucca. The revolution starts here.