Monday, 29 November 2010
Bocca di Lupo, Soho
Is there any other country whose cuisine is so inconsistently represented as Italy? Up until not so long ago I was safe in the knowledge that there was nowhere worth visiting unless you paid through the nose - places like Aspley's in the Lanesborough, or the equally pricey Zafferano. Good restaurants, sure, and probably fairly true to their Italian roots, but a plate of fried gnocchi does not cost £15 in Emilia Romagna. Then along came Zucca, and suddenly the rules changed. Gorgeous, rustic, exciting food, all for around £20 a head. Next, Trullo, doing the same for Highbury and Islington - not perfect perhaps, but head and shoulders above anything you may have otherwise called Italian until fairly recently. And let's not forget the brilliant Polpetto. A few more restaurants like those, a few more meals like those, and we were well on the road to redemption.
Along this road though, which generally followed an upward trend, were a couple of bumps. Osteria dell'Angolo wasn't completely terrible but was everything I might have expected, before the arrival of Zucca et al., from an Italian restaurant in London. Slightly overpriced, slightly underwhelming, slightly rubbish. And a meal at Degò (at the risk of stretching the metaphor somewhat) wasn't so much a bump as a complete car crash - diabolical cooking at an unhealthy premium, disastrous in almost every respect. Amusingly, the PR powers that be behind Degò have decided the best way to spin my less than complimentary review is to criticise the spelling of "focaccia", accuse me of a "lack of professionalism" (guilty) and mobilise their staff and friends to leave delightfully outraged comments, a defensiveness which only serves to underline just how bad the place is.
It turns out, though, that all these ups and downs were merely preparation - groundwork, if you like - for what I decided on Friday is the Italian restaurant in London - Bocca di Lupo. There are plenty of people who will be reading this thinking "What took you so long?", and believe me I'm wondering the same myself; it has certainly had no shortage of positive coverage over the years and nobody I know who's been there has a bad word to say about the place. But better late than never, I suppose, and on a cold evening in late November, I and a couple of friends sat down to what is probably the best Italian meal I've ever eaten in this country.
Over some bright green and juicy Cerignola olives we studied the menu. Good lord, it reads well. Divided into various equally appetising sections such as 'fried', 'roasts', 'pastas & risottos' etc., each dish is marked with the region of Italy it hails from, and most are available in large or small portions. Wanting to sample as much of the menu as we could, we chose a healthy smattering of small dishes, first of which to arrive was a deep-fried artichoke and a plate of fried seafood.
I didn't ask for proof of this on Friday, but I'm told that up until the seafood at Bocca di Lupo is served to customers, much of it is kept alive and swimming in saltwater basins behind the bar. Certainly, I've rarely had more headily fresh and vibrant fried prawns and squid than in this plate of 'fritti', which for only £8.50 contained a generous number of bright red prawns, crispy salty squid and delicate disks of aubergine. Even better though was the artichoke, the deep-frying process rendering otherwise tough leaves edible without losing any of the earthy, tangy notes of artichoke.
A raw radish, celeriac and pecorino salad sounds like it could easily be rather dull, but the top-drawer ingredients and generous application of truffle oil, as well as the many exciting textures from the pomegranate seeds and soft cheese, turned it into something special. And a plate of crudita di mare consisting of raw fish and seafood of various types was simply brilliant - you may have had raw scallops elsewhere previously, and very nice these were too, but the raw langoustine was a revelation - fresh and sweet and enough to make you question why anyone ever cooks langoustine at all.
First of the pasta dishes was a rich pappardelle of ox cheek, beefy and silky in all the right places and using fantastic yellow pasta. Equally superb was an "extremely spicy" (their words, and they weren't far wrong) orecchiette with salami, onion and cherry tomato which blew the winter blues away not only with aggressive levels of chilli but a perfect mix of sweet and soft flavours.
The one "large" (at least in terms of pricing) course we ordered was this cute roast teal, stuffed with sage and thyme leaves, dressed with crispy bacon and beautifully cooked to deep brown, gamey perfection. It was brilliant, as was a side order of puntarelle (a kind of chicory) with anchovy and lemon which, to be fair, didn't meet with universal approval on our table but which I found a pungent, citrusy counterfoil to the rich duck.
Particularly in these days of the proto-chain, the word 'unique' is over-used with regards to restaurants - there are few places which really stand out from the crowd and consistently and successfully dare to do something different. More than anywhere else, Bocca di Lupo reminds me of St John - bold and creative cooking, using interesting ingredients in exciting new ways, on the one hand mindful of the noble traditions of (in this case) Italian cuisine and on the other forging exciting new paths into pastures unknown. It wasn't just that every dish at Bocca di Lupo was tasty and attractive - though they were, and then some - it was more than that, an exhilarating sense of discovery, the sheer joy of tasting dishes the like of which I've had nowhere else in the world, never mind London. Eating here is such an unadulturated delight, each mouthful of each dish triggering gasps and giggles and coos, that almost as soon as it was over I wanted to book myself in and do it all over again. And before long, I can guarantee, I will be doing exactly that. It has taken me an inexcusably long time to visit Bocca di Lupo, but this journey, with all its false starts and wrong turns and glimpsed potential, may have finally reached the promised land.