Following on the theme from my last post – where Julia Roberts doesn’t get enough to eat in Bali because she ate too much in Italy and had to buy new pants, I was very much delighted last week to come to the conclusion that the time had come for me, too, to buy new pants. Like many other brides-to-be, two months before my wedding and I have quit the gym and put myself on a strict diet of carbohydrates and cookies.
Italian restaurants are a dime a dozen in most cosmopolitan cities. Pizza, pasta, garlic bread, cheese. Wine, throw in some more cheese and maybe a Peroni – I’m a happy lady. But truth be told, most of the time, one bowl of pasta, as satisfying as it may be, tastes the same as the next. Zizzi, Prezzo, Strada, Spaghetti House (ew, seriously) – hearty yes, good value definitely, but a quality meal which transports me to a land where the sun shines brightly over vast vineyards and the modest yet romantic olive-skinned son of the local milkman wins the heart of the fashionista daughter of the regional mafia boss and, most importantly, where FOOD means BUSINESS – probably not.
Le Marche is one of the many (20) regions in Italy that I didn’t know existed. I’ve been to Italy once – to Venice, as an exchange student, when I was fifteen. We stayed in a converted convent, drank a lot of contraband alcohol, and played mean tricks on the kids who fell asleep first. It wasn’t exactly the cultural experience that I imagine having there today and I spent a good chunk of my time being terrified of pigeons pooping on me. The only thing I learned how to say in Italian was: “Could I please have two scoops of coffee ice cream in a cone.” I ate only pizza (all I could afford) and drank a lot of wine and Fanta because both were cheaper than water.
It’s not even a fact, you know, that pizza was invented in Italy; the ancient Greeks lay claim to this too.
For more common stereotypes about Italy and Italians that may or may not be true, click here.
Rossodisera on Monmouth Street features in my new favourite book, Secret London: Unusual Bars and Restaurants – you will probably see further entries from this guide in future blog posts. The owners, Igor Iacopini and Samuele Ciaralli, come from Le Marche, which is on the eastern side of Central Italy, incidentally – and have done no less than transform the basement of an English deli into their own little slice of Italia in Londra.
From the outside, Rossodisera looks like your average deli/sandwich shop come tourist trap in Covent Garden. It is a sandwich shop, yes, and it is also in Covent Garden, but beyond the meat counter and down a narrow flight of stairs is the “excellent restaurant” itself – a tiny, warm, inviting (did I say tiny?) space full of hungry Italians looking for a taste of home. OK, so there was one table of loud Americans. We’re talking theatre district, after all.
The room is tastefully designed to resemble an Italian country house and is decorated using actual stone from the actual owner’s actual father’s actual house. I forgot that I’d never been to real Italy (having concluded that Venice doesn’t count, sorry Venetians and your blinds) before I could even begin to remember that, in fact, I had.
We ordered the obligatory selezione di formaggi to start, which arrived on a slice of olive tree from Le Marche. We were served two hard cheeses and two soft – what they were exactly I couldn’t tell you, the waitress had a pretty thick accent from, you guessed it, Italy – paired with confiture and a beautiful clear honey. We also ordered the cheapest bottle of red wine on the wine list – we have no reservations about looking cheap – and it more than did the trick.
We both chose pasta for our main dishes. I chose the orecchiette rossodisera – a small, oval-shaped pasta with a generous serving of extra virgin olive oil, soft ricotta cheese, sundried tomatoes and fresh basil. Not to detract in any way from how nice the sauce was, but I really like this pasta shape because it looks like little ears. In fact, I would wager that the direct translation for orecchiette is little ears. I’m not even going to bother looking this one up.
Duncan ordered the chitarrina sibilla – a homemade egg pasta with a cream and truffle sauce, a roulade of pork belly direct from La Marche, mushrooms and ‘scorzone’ truffle shavings.
Now, my other half is not one to dish out praise lightly.
“This is the best pasta I’ve had in years,” he exclaimed. I couldn’t have agreed more; made fresh in-house with great quality ingredients, this really gave new meaning to the word homemade.
When the waitress came to clear our plates, Duncan was quick to let her know that this was, in fact, “the best pasta he’d ever had.” I was very close to suggesting we order another plate each, or move to Italy. (Dunc – if you’re reading this – is this an option?)
Sitting next to me while I write this, Duncan says:
“It was the dog’s bollocks. Quote me, will you?”
You can’t get any more Italian than that.
Another good option for authentic Italian food is La Polenteria on Old Compton Street. I don’t know why so many people are adverse to polenta. Maybe because it looks a little bit unappetizing – like a large, creamy plate of baby food. Sure, it’s stodgy – but when prepared properly it can be a light, fluffy and extremely healthy alternative to rice (unless, like me, you enjoy covering it with cheese).
Polenta is actually a cornmeal boiled into a porridge, which you can either eat straight up or fry (yup), grill or bake. In North America, we eat this with maple syrup. Then again, in North America we eat everything with maple syrup, the greatest thing ever to come from trees.
I visited La Polenteria one rainy lunch break in April, with two girlfriends who both opted for the restaurant’s very economical lunch deal (two courses for under a tenner) while I selected a salad of fresh greens, grilled polenta, sundried tomatoes and scamorza. I had food envy instantaneously – Harriet’s vegan caponata and Stella’s pollo alla romana consisted of a generous (maybe too generous for lunchtime) helping of fluffly polenta basically smothered in ratatouille and chicken regu, respectively.
Historically, polenta was served as a peasant food in Europe, but don’t let that put you off – hipsters eat this now. This is a nice little spot for a cheap and cheerful lunch of either a top salad (I got over my envy once the girls started letting me pick off their plates) or something a bit different – polenta doesn’t deserve such a bad rep.
Need to know:
5 Monmouth Street
020 7240 3683
Nearest tube: Covent Garden
Opening Hours: Mon-Fri 8 am-11 pm, Saturday 930 am-1130 pm, Sunday 930 am-1030 pm
64 Old Compton Street
020 7434 3617
Nearest tube: Leicester Square
Opening hours: Mon-Thurs 830 am-1130 pm, Friday 830am-12 am Saturday 12pm-12 am, Sunday 12 pm-11 pm