Food | The Gannet

Front of house

Charming, theatrical Italian hospitality plus classy food makes for la dolce vita in London.

February 26 2011
Bill Knott

Had I ambled into a French restaurant in London in the 1960s, I may well have been greeted rather snootily by the penguin-like maître d’ (probably a failed actor called Eric, from Romford) and, should he have deigned to seat me, I might well have ordered the chicken Kiev. Any sense of theatre was not so much Comédie Française as Brechtian verfremdung.

Had I entered a London trattoria of the same era, il padrone Luigi would have embraced me as a long-lost brother, kissed the lady on all three cheeks, and I might well have ordered the pollo alla sorpresa: which is, of course, chicken Kiev, the sorpresa (surprise) being the jet of molten garlic butter aimed unerringly at the right eyeball.

Apart from a few peculiarly British aberrations – spaghetti bolognese springs to mind – the trattoria menu was similar to the bistro menu. A sense of theatre was the real difference, and a couple of post-prandial snifters on the casa: dubious Italian brandy for him; even dodgier limoncello for the lady.

But now that authenticity has been added to hospitality, Italian restaurants are some of the best in London – their ranks joined by a brace of promising newcomers. Tempo, which opened last summer, is the smart reincarnation of a Mayfair trat called Franks: bare white walls and well-spaced turquoise chairs.

The menu offers Venetian-style cicchetti to start, including the soft, spicy (and very trendy) nduja sausage, and an octopus salad – seasoned, unusually, with apple and pomegranate, to splendid effect. Carpaccio of swordfish gained considerable zing from olives, capers and lemon: Japanese chef Yoshi Yamada has a fine grasp of flavour. His seafood stew demonstrated this admirable talent still further; prawns, mussels, pollock and clams luxuriated in a rust-coloured, deeply flavoured broth. Again, seasoning was pitch-perfect. Mayfair is very lucky to have him.

Meanwhile, the South Kensington site that once housed French bistro Papillon has reopened as a classy Italian joint called Ilia, with chef Omar Agostini manning the stoves. A blood-red Berkel slicer hogs centre stage and is used to great effect on San Daniele ham, superb bresaola and delicately fennel-spiked salami.

Stand-out dishes included a rustic version of ravioli del plin (“pinched” ravioli from Piemonte) in a rich guineafowl broth; a well-seasoned steak tartare; and an ineffably elegant version of vitello tonnato, the veal cooked pink and paired with a piquant, anchovy-rich tuna sauce.

Front-of-house veteran Umberto Scomparin paraded a fat turbot and a couple of giant slabs of bistecca alla fiorentina – there is a welcome sense of old-style trattoria theatre at Ilia, in contrast with the frosty minimalism of London’s new-wave Italians. They even have a bottle of limoncello behind the bar: per la bella signora, naturally.

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