“Spaghetti... but not on toast!” read the sign in the Goodge Street window of the UK’s first Spaghetti House: back in 1955, its clientele were used to getting pasta from a can. Italian restaurants in New York, by then, were already well established, thanks to the thousands of Italians who had made the city their home; and, while Manhattan’s Little Italy has been mostly gobbled up by Chinatown, Italian is still the city’s default cuisine, from pizza by-the-slice to more upscale restaurants.
Like Scarpetta, on Madison Avenue, where well-heeled Manhattanites wolf down plates of handmade pasta, smartly sauced seafood, slow-cooked short ribs, perky salads and indulgent dolci (the espresso budino, coffee-drenched sponge with salted caramel, hazelnut ice cream and chocolate biscotti, is a case in point). Head to the bar downstairs for a digestivo, where the terrific live music draws an appreciative throng.
Sette, the new restaurant at the Bulgari London, has a similar ambience: hardly surprising, since LDV Hospitality, Scarpetta’s owner, has put it together. The Bulgari management has taken the wise decision to put its new restaurant on the ground floor, and the speakeasy-like bar – Nolita Social – in the basement. Enter via the door on Knightsbridge Green and you wouldn’t even know you were in a hotel.
The clubby, elegantly upholstered dining room radiates an easy familiarity, as, for me, did some of the dishes I had sampled in Manhattan. Hidden under the starched cloth covering the bread basket, for example, were two slices of stromboli, a kind of rolled pizza stuffed with soppressata and smoked mozzarella. Chuck in a green salad and you would have a perfectly good lunch.
The Gannet found room for more. There were slices of raw, flappingly fresh yellowtail streaked with ginger oil; little slabs of those slow-cooked short ribs, with a nutty mound of spelt risotto; a curled tentacle of octopus sauced with guazzetto (reduced fish broth); and cavatelli, pasta shells, happily smothered in braised kid, with crumbled goat’s cheese adding freshness and acidity. Then came veal fillet with glazed sweetbreads, spring artichokes and light, cheesy gnocchi alla romana, and blushingly pink lamb with crisped, slow-cooked lamb neck and broad beans. And the espresso budino to finish, naturally.
Chef Adriano Cavagnini – previously executive chef at the Corinthia and Four Seasons – is too old a hand to be seduced by flashy modernism: simplicity is his watchword, and he relies on his top-notch ingredients to speak for themselves. As at Scarpetta, Sette’s signature dish is a homespun skein of fresh spaghetti with tomato and basil: it is joyously unadorned, exquisitely fragrant and created entirely without a tin-opener.