The visiting chefs arrived in "brass monkeys" winter weather, eagerly anticipating a tempting eight-course menu showcasing, among other things, Italian charcuterie, salad leaves and seafood. They were welcomed by the impeccable staff of Locanda Locatelli - led by restaurant manager Roberto Veneruzzo and sommelier Massimiliano Sali ("we've been made to feel really special", said one happy diner to me later) - and Locatelli himself put in a fleeting early appearance to meet and greet as a trolley bearing a huge wheel of Grana Padano provided a spectacular focal point during the pre-lunch reception.
Shavings of salt-tinged, moist cheese were the perfect accompaniment for a glass of Italy's favourite bubbly, prosecco, and set the tone for the rest of the meal. Punchy, direct flavours balanced on the palate by the skill in the ingredient matches, with each dish building upon its predecessor in the menu until the finale of tiramisù (what else?).
A very unscientific straw poll on the day revealed that the third course of oxtail ravioli was a big hit. "The pasta just melts in your mouth - I could eat that all day," remarked Mark Sayers, head chef at the Norfolk Mead hotel. "People didn't serve oxtail for a while with all this foot-and-mouth and BSE thing but it's really pleasing to see it make a reappearance now on menus."
Being a person of very simple tastes, I loved the platter of charcuterie - salame di cuneo from Piemont, prosciutto Romano al peppe nero, spalla al peppe nero (aka shoulder of pork), lonza (aka loin of pork), pancetta, speck and a pungent salami di capra (aka goat salami) that kick-started the menu proper. And there were fantastic breads - schiacciata with radicchio and stracchino cheese; garlic, olive, potato, sage and fennel seed breads; chickpea focaccia, maize bread and rosetta - created by the restaurant's baker, Federico Turri. There's something very satisfying about rusticity in top-notch surroundings.
Votes also went out on more than one table for the crunchy wild chicory salad - the bitterness of the chicory being taken down a notch or two by an hour's soaking - and two slices of tender braised beef sitting on a creamy-as-can-be polenta base. "I've never tasted polenta quite like that," commented Chris Dance, sous chef at the Catey-winning Glasshouse restaurant in Worcester.
Sometimes, however, it's the smallest of details that stay in a chef's mind. Olive oil, for example. "That's lovely - it's really very fruity. Great flavour," said Matthew Martins, chef de partie at the Norfolk Mead hotel, inadvertently discovering the secret of many a Michelin-lauded restaurant. You have to get the smallest of things spot-on and at Locanda Locatelli that attention to detail has helped to make it the restaurant of choice of pop superstars, stage luvvies and foodie anoraks alike.
- Scaglie di Grana Padano dalla forma (Wheel of Grana Padano cheese)
- Tagliere di salumi misti (Mixed cured meats)
- Insalata di puntarelle, capperi e accuighe (Wild chicory salad, caper and anchovy)
- Ravioli alla vaccinara (Oxtail ravioli)
- Risotto alle vongole (clam risotto)
- Filetto di branzino in crosta d'erbe e sale (Fillet of wild sea bass baked in salt and herb crust)
- Brasato d manzo al vino (Braised beef with red wine and polenta)
- Coffee and amaretti
With thanks to Grana Padano, Trustmeat (oxtail and beef), Gastronimica (cured meats), Euro Food Brands (coffee).
Wines: Valdobbiadene Prosecco Extra Dry, Col Vetoraz; Bianco del Salento, Feudi di San Marazno, 2004; Rosso del Salento, Feudi di San Marzano, 2004; Brachetto d'Acqui, Azienda Agricola Contero, 2004
With thanks to: A Moveable Feast (Prosecco), Astrum Winecellars (Bianco/rosso del Salento), Liberty Wines (Brachetto d'Acqui).
- Trustmeat 020 7607 8104
- Astrum Winecellars 020 8870 5252
- Liberty Wines 020 7720 5350
- A Moveable Feast 0793 205 4376
- Euro Food Brands (Illy) 01604 821200
- Gastronomica 020 7407 4488
- Grana Padano 00 39 03 0910 9811
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