Front of house

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

Tempo Restaurant & Bar, Mayfair, London.
Tempo Restaurant & Bar, Mayfair, London. | Image: Danny Elwes

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.

Ilia restaurant, South Kensington, London.
Ilia restaurant, South Kensington, London.

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.

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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.

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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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