Just like Indian food is not all curries and naan bread, Italian cuisine is much more than just pizza and spaghetti. The Northern Italian tradition is one of much heartier dishes, like meat stews and thick soups, made to provide comfort from the wet and chilly weather. As the cold season kicks in, I find myself craving these foods with renewed intensity, hardly able to wait until the next trip home to get my fix. I miss eating my grandmother’s stews, and scooping up the gravy with big chunks of polenta. I miss popping at the bar a couple of hours before dinner, having a relaxed aperitivo with a bunch of friends – and eating my weight in peanuts and canapés.
I did all of this, and much more, in the few hours I spent walking the London Restaurant Festival’s Cicchetti trail: a culinary journey across six Italian inspired eateries in Central London, each offering a taster dish and a drink. My fellow explorers were the lovely Angela of The Awkward Blog, and Alida from My Little Italian Kitchen, whom I discovered grew up just round the corner from my hometown. The coincidence still baffles me: if I met a born and bred Eskimo strolling down Shepherd’s Bush Green, I’d be less surprised. You’re not here to discuss how small the world is, though (or are you?). Let’s talk about some glorious food, shall we?
Stop 1: Augustus Harris, Covent Garden
Despite the British name, Augustus Harris has all it takes to look and feel like an Italian bar: a low lit, cosy bar room, a well stocked spirits shelf, and a giant bottle of Campari standing on the counter.
Realising that our experience was off to a great start was a matter of minutes: all it took for three glasses of Aperol spritz to land on our table (quite light in booze, but good nonetheless). The true delight, however, was the selection of crostini that came shortly afterwards. Crostini are small nibbles, similar to canapés, but served on chunky slices of bread; a classic snack in Italy, and usually a quite interesting one, as most bars come up with creative combinations of flavours. I liked my pesto, mozzarella and cherry tomato crostino, thoroughly enjoyed the one with porchetta and taleggio cheese, and fell in love with the one with mushrooms and parsley butter. I bet you now know why I miss aperitivo so much.
Stop 2: The House of Peroni, Holborn
My experience at The House of Peroni was the only off-key note in an otherwise perfect afternoon. The baked potato with pancetta and carbonara sauce on the menu immediately caught my eye, but fell short of my expectations: both the potato and the pancetta shavings were overcooked, and the sauce felt like a bit of a stretch (there’s no such thing as carbonara sauce in Italy – just raw egg yolk poured on your pasta). A real shame, for in my shameless carb lover’s opinion, the fusion between Italian flavours and a quintessentially British jacket potato had a lot of potential.
Food aside, The House of Peroni’s interiors left me in awe. Its four floors are glitzy, stylish, visually stunning; if you go in with a camera, prepare to spend hours photographing each and every detail, down to the writings on the walls.
Stop 3: Mele e Pere, Soho
Mele e Pere‘s beef featherblade reminded me of an old Italian TV advert’s catchphrase: “it’s so tender, you could slice it with a breadstick”. That commercial promoted a well-known brand of canned tuna, and as you would expect, its claim was miles away from the truth. However, the braised beef and soft polenta I had at Mele e Pere felt just like that; had I had a breadstick to try my luck with, I have no doubt they’d have passed the test. The polenta was of the runny sort, typical of Veneto, and just as good as the firm, chunky one you get in my native Friuli. There was a lot of quality packed into that tiny plate, and I walked out craving for more. I can’t wait to find out what other delights Mele e Pere’s menu has in store.
Stop 4: La Polenteria, Soho
All the memories that spring to my mind when I think of polenta have to do with my grandmother. As I remember the hours she spent attending to her copper paiolo, incessantly stirring for up to an hour, I realise that, simple as it may sound, turning a plain flour and water mixture into a mound of polenta is a labour of love. That labour of love is La Polenteria’s very business: their menu only includes dishes made with polenta, and the demanding, time-consuming process of cooking it is drawn up on a blackboard, for all visitors to see.
For the Cicchetti Trail, La Polenteria serves a selection of polenta canapes. Some have typical Northern Italian toppings (mushrooms with truffle oil), others betray a Southern influence (pesto and vegetables), all felt pleasing to the palate and (thankfully) not heavy to the stomach. I had no cause for complaining for the small portion, as we had two more eateries to visit; glancing around, though, I saw very generous platters being delivered at other tables. A good omen; I’ll be back soon.
Stop 5: Snowflake, Soho
With four savoury courses down and two more stops to go, Snowflake marked the beginning of our dessert spree. Never quite the cheese lover, I chickened out from the special Parmesan gelato, and went for two scoops of pistachio. Just like many times before, my all-time favourite didn’t let me down. Snowflake’s pistachio has a rich, nutty taste, and big chunks of salted pistachio cropping up here and there; a real treat. When they say that Italians do it better, they’re obviously talking about gelato…right?
Stop 6: Caffè Caldesi, Marylebone
If our restaurant hop started with a bang at Augustus Harris, our last course at Caffè Caldesi was a loud, resounding explosion of delight. You must pardon my enthusiasm: I’ve hardly eaten a Venetian doughnut since I first moved to London. Venetian doughnuts (which we call zeppole, frittole or frittelle) are typical of the Italian Carnival; they’re all the rage between February and March, and impossible to find at any other time of the year. Unfortunately, there’s no savouring them vicariously through my mother’s Skype calls: all I get is food envy, and a hunger I just can’t shake.
Caffè Caldesi treated us to two large frittelle, oozing waves of zabaglione (a typical Italian custard, fortified with liquor). I may or may not have let out a little squeal. I may or may not have licked lashings of cream from my fingers. All I know is that, since last Saturday, my mind is firmly on one track: can I go back for more?
Liked what you read? You’ll enjoy these too:
- More details about the Cicchetti Trail, running one more event on Saturday 25 October
- Angela and Alida‘s accounts of the Cicchetti Trail, no less enthusiastic than mine.
- Jesse, Miho and Ai Pheng‘s reviews of the Japanese Journey – another of the London Restaurant Festival’s themed events.
Note: I received a free press pass to the Cicchetti Trail, courtesy of Nuffnang UK. All opinions are my own.