May 23, 2015
London for cooks - Blog - Tasty London: Italiano Vero

Tasty London: Italiano Vero

I just came back from Italy, the place which has cultivated its passion and love of food for centuries. Now,I just cannot stop thinking about artichokes, tagliatelle, prosciutto and the likes. This blog is about all things Italian in London (obviously edible ones).  The original interview with Julia Varshavskaya (in Russian) is published in Russian here:

Today our topic is Italian London.

Anna, I suspect that the Londoners have been in love with Italian food for a long time. Is it true?

Oh, yes! Already in the 20s of the last century a lot of Italian restaurants started opening in London. Straight away they gained popularity here. I think it happened because Italian cuisine is both rich in taste and satisfying.  But the real boom started somewhere in the 60s. It is then, that Italian food became more fashionable and people not only started eating it in restaurants, but began recreating the food at home. Italian restaurants started attracting famous politicians, writers, film stars, which truly made these places cool. One of these places was restaurant La Famiglia in Chelsea. It was opened by Alvaro Maccioni, who is often referred to as the “godfather of Italian chefs” in London. His restaurant became the place where celebrity spotting was part of the dining experience - even now the walls are full with pictures of well-known people together with Alvaro.

Indeed, it was then, that Italian cuisine started gaining its place in home kitchens in London. Small family stores with authentic products started sprouting around town. You could get Italian sauces, home-made pasta, spices and herbs. By the way some of these stores already work online - like Lina Stores, I Camisa and Sons , Salvino, Melograno Alimentari and Monte. There is a brilliant store, called Italian Farmers in Stoud Green, which is an affiliation of an Italian company called Campagnamica. They campaign for true “made in Italy “ products, working against the trend of producing Italian products in other countries.

The next step in the Italian chef’s crusade in London was to penetrate the fast food market. Arancini Brothers , which specialize in a traditional Italian fast food arancini (filled rice balls) started popping up in different places in town. 

Obviously, there is a myriad of pizzerias in London. One, which virtually every Italian person I get to know in London tells me about is Franco Manca (which serves only sourdough pizzas). Originally they appeared in Brixton, but they are expanding and you can find them now everywhere around the town.

Talking about Italian food, never forget about coffee. Today, it is absolutely no problem to go out and have a “Cafe” like you do in Rome at a bar table of a pasticceria, chatting to a good-looking Italian bartender about the weather in London and his dreams about sunny Italy. One of these places is the legendary Bar Italia  in Soho, which is akin to any coffee shop in Rome and is open from 7am to 5am every day.

One other little place opened recently in Kensington, not far from Hyde park. It is called Brutti&Boni - serving brilliant coffee, prosciutto panini and small Italian pastry filled with cream and caramel - which make your head go round.

Italian cuisine is very addictive and quickly gains its place in any city open to new trends. Why is it like this?

Well, firstly it does not have any extremes: it is easy to cook and easy to eat. It is not to spicy, not too fatty, not too exotic. British people like the Mediterranean cuisine, as it uses almost the same ingredients: meat, fish, veggies, pasta. But it is full of taste and has a reputation of being healthy. That is why Italians did not have any problem conquering English markets, English hearts and winning over English stomachs. Obviously Italy also has been a traditional place to go to as early as  the 18th century.

I usually take a lot  on board from places we travel to. For example during my last trip to Italy I especially appreciated the Italian concept of serving dishes: starting with vegetables, followed by a little portion of pasta and finished by meat or fish. A lot of diets suggest that this sequence of proteins and carbohydrates is actually easier digested. So I did do an experiment and tried serving food in exactly this order. My guinea pigs are usually my children and my husband. The experiment turned out to be a big success with my family: firstly kids started eating vegetables and ate a lot of them, secondly one feels much better after this type of a dinner. 

Although somebody pointed out to me later, that this diet has a “not only healthy “ explanation. Apparently, this sequence of dishes was introduced to get people eat less of the  expensive proteins and more of the cheap carbohydrates. This is Italian economy for you.

When you go to Italian restaurants, for example in Moscow, you can quickly understand what really makes real authentic Italian food. For example pasta al dente in Russian restaurants often does not have anything in common with the Italian one. And the choice of sauces in Russia is often limited by bolognese and carbonara. Are there same specifics of Italian food in London?

This is one thing, that often surprises me in London! For example, we went to Florence when the young purple artichokes were in season: they add them to pasta, thinly slice raw artichokes for salad, marinade them, saute, deep-fry them. Also it was there where I tried my first nettle sauce! A very tasty one, by the way. So just off the airplane we went for a quick meal to Trullo - my favourite small Italian restaurant in London (it is a tiny place with a very limited menu, but with a truly Italian taste). And what did we see on he menu? Artichokes and nettle sauce! Both tasting exactly the way we adored so much in Italy.

Same thing with Burro and Salvia  – also a small restaurant, which specializes in pasta. The menu is very simple and you see straight away, what you are going to get. Nothing superfluous and unnecessary: simple sauces, best ingredients, all prepared without unnecessary fuss.

Certainly, the specifics of Italian food in London are limited by presence and absence of ingredients.  It is much easier to prepare good home-made pasta here, than a caprese salad - for which you would have to search for good tomatoes and perfect mozarella. Some restaurants import products directly from Italy or from specialized Italian suppliers. 

We are used to Italian cuisine as to something very simple and affordable. But, London has its own rules. And I guess there are some more fine-dining Italians here. Which ones, would you recommend trying? 

Certainly. For example Locanda Locatelli - one-Michelin-starred restaurant. Opened long time ago, they offer menu based on the same principle as any good Italian trattoria: vegetable, pasta, proteins. But the dishes have beed rethought by the chef, who multiplied the taste of the best ingredients by refining the dishes. And as the ingredients are treated with a lot of care and preserving their natural taste, it is paramount, that the quality is best!

The other one is River Cafe , the restaurant which has won a Michelin Star in 1997 and has since retained it, due to its somewhat rustic food. The credo of the owner is to buy fresh ingredients for each dish and never to stock up in the fridge. Not the broad choice of ingredients is paramount, but their seasonality.


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