All the world’s major cities have more than their fair share of Italian restaurants, and London – with more than 2,000, according to one recent estimate – is no exception. But over the past 36 years Italian food has had a disproportionate influence on the dining scene here, thanks to one restaurant, The River Café, which opened on the banks of the Thames in Hammersmith in 1987, and placed the same importance on wine as it did on food.
It also spawned a whole generation of entrepreneurial young chefs who adopted the philosophy and set up their own restaurants in the River Café mould. Most notably Jamie Oliver, but also including Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Sam and Sam Clark, Stevie Parle and Theo Randall.
None of them were Italian, and neither were their River Café mentors Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray, two women who were just passionate about Italian food. Nor indeed was another ambassador for regional Italian cooking, Angela Hartnett, who came to fame through the Gordon Ramsay stable (but at least has an Italian grandmother). The only Italian to dominate the London scene in quite that way has been Giorgio Locatelli, who opened his eponymous restaurant Locanda Locatelli in 2002.
Wines to match
Maybe it’s because they were outsiders that these chefs appreciated just what simple Italian food had to offer without having the desire to reinvent it. Coincidentally, the wine offering at many of these establishments was moulded by another outsider, Canadian David Gleave MW, who used to work for Italian importer Enotria before setting up his own business Liberty Wines, and who has consistently championed the huge diversity of Italian wines.
These pioneer restaurants were fortunate to have been established when they were. Today’s restaurateurs are no less interested in wine, but are having to operate under far greater constraints, not least the crippling expense of trading in central London. This has led many to focus on just pasta or, even more profitably, pizza, and high-margin cocktails rather than wine. But there are still some real gems with fantastic wine lists out there, so treat yourself at one of the best London Italian restaurants you may not have heard of.
12 Archer Street, W1D 7BB
Nearest tube: Piccadilly Circus/Leicester Square
Savvy Italophiles cherish the knowledge that there is a small oasis of civilisation in the midst of the West End theatreland madness – Jacob Kenedy’s small convivial restaurant Bocca di Lupo. Kenedy, one of those rare chefs who is genuinely interested in wine, spends time in Italy sourcing bottles for his imaginative, regionally based wine list, picking up ideas for dishes along the way. The seafood risotto I had there recently was inspired by a summer trip to Campania.
Although the compact dining room is cosy, it’s more fun sitting at the bar to watch the kitchen at work and the food going out at the pass. Great for a pre-theatre drink and a snack.
Don’t miss Kenedy’s regularly changing themed menus that make the most of seasonal ingredients such as artichokes and truffles.
35-37 Greenhill Rents, EC1M 6BN
Nearest tube: Farringdon/Barbican
A new restaurant from Russell Norman (ex Polpo) is always newsworthy, but this self-consciously kitsch Farringdon trattoria extends his usual territory – beyond the cicchetti bars of Venice – to Florence. It’s a homely menu full of hearty rustic dishes like pappardelle with rabbit and sausages with lentils, accompanied by hearty Tuscan wines (although there is also bistecca alla Fiorentina if you feel like splashing out). No culinary fireworks, no wallet-busting wines, just a really fun place to hang out with friends – though be warned, it can be noisy. Oh, and there’s Chianti in fiaschi (the straw-covered bottles).
Don’t miss Kicking off with one of Norman’s excellent £5 Negroni cocktails.
Broadgate Circle, 135 Bishopsgate, EC2M 3YD
Nearest tube: Liverpool Street
If Las Vegas created an Italian deli it would look something like Eataly, a mind-blowingly huge selection of every type of Italian food and drink you can imagine, with walls full of different wines. You will probably be so exhausted going round it you’ll need a pitstop, which is the main reason to eat at one of its three restaurants and bars. These are not, I think it’s fair to say, in the same league as the rest of the restaurants in this line-up. So why am I including Eataly? Because you can buy one of the excellent bottles and take it into a restaurant for a modest corkage fee, and if you stick to salumi, cheese or pizza you could spend a very congenial couple of hours doing your midweek shopping. And it’s an extraordinary experience.
Don’t miss The opportunity to shop for your next dinner party.
87 Pimlico Road, SW1W 8PH
Nearest tube: Sloane Square
Around for more than 30 years, Enoteca Turi only recently moved to its current home in Pimlico – but it fits it like a glove. It’s highly personal and quite charmingly old-fashioned. When I visited, a slightly doddery octogenarian was being escorted to the door on the arm of one of the waiting staff with a cheery ‘See you on Saturday’. The other draw is the quite exceptional wine list, clearly a passion of the owner Giuseppe Turi and something that no restaurant starting from scratch these days could possibly afford. If you were dining alone it would keep you happily engrossed throughout the meal. Traditional dishes like calf’s liver and rabbit in porchetta are also matched with wines on the list.
Don’t miss The chance to dive into some stellar old Barolo wines.
88 St John Street, EC1M 4EH
Nearest tube: Farringdon/Barbican
An unlikely offshoot of London’s famous Clove Club in Shoreditch, Luca combines a top-end fine-dining restaurant with an exceptionally cosy trat-style bar. With a great list of its own, the restaurant is very focused on wine lovers. Let them know what you want to drink in advance and they’ll make sure it’s perfectly served – or bring along your own bottle for a corkage charge of £35. The food is more Britalian than classic Italian: pretty and light, although pasta is a particularly strong suit. I could eat the celestial crab cacio e pepe every day. Skim through the wine list (which comes on an iPad) for a suitable match. There’s a particularly good selection by the glass.
Don’t miss The addictive Parmesan fries (with a glass of Franciacorta).
49-51 Curtain Road, EC2A 3PT
Nearest tube: Old Street
One of the leading lights of the new breed of natural wine bars and restaurants but with an Italian twist and the USP of an ‘in house’ salumeria (ask for a seat opposite the slicing machine so you can watch the action). There are also lots of other fashionably on-trend features such as house-made ricotta, home-made sausages and hand-rolled pasta. It’s a very short stroll from Old Street station in the lively Shoreditch/Hoxton area, and the excellent Passione e Vino is almost next door if you want to do a bit of a natural wine crawl. (Manteca also offers more classic wine dinner options, too.)
Don’t miss The house Mortadella.
20 Queen Street, W1J 5PP
Nearest tube: Green Park
Angela Hartnett has become such a familiar face on our screens that it’s easy to forget she’s also a successful restaurateur. Murano in Mayfair is her original – and most expensive – restaurant, but it’s not in the least bit stuffy and, unusually for an Italian restaurant, offers both vegetarian and vegan menus. For those who don’t want to stick to Italian wine there are plenty of other options, including a significant amount of Burgundy, though by-the-glass is definitely not the way to go here. Dive into the less familiar byways of the list – including a surprisingly large selection of sweet wines – and there are some much more affordable picks.
Don’t miss Hartnett’s pied de mouton mushroom risotto (part of an innovative vegan set lunch).
1 Hamilton Place, W1J 7QY
Nearest tube: Hyde Park Corner/Green Park
If you don’t fancy schlepping over to the River Café’s somewhat out-of-the way Hammersmith location (or don’t fancy its prices), you could do worse than try its former head chef Theo Randall’s restaurant at the InterContinental on Hyde Park Corner. Hotel restaurants aren’t always the most exciting venues but this is an elegant, quiet, central spot with very accomplished cooking and a more than decent wine list (an advantage of being part of an international hotel chain). The pasta is particularly good, as you’d expect from a River Café alumnus.
Don’t miss The excellent monthly regional menus. The weekend brunches are great value, too.