Launched in 2009 by four friends, Italian restaurant and wine bar Degò prides itself on being both authentic and modern Italian. Tom Vaughan reports
Born in Vicenza in Northern Italy, Massimo Mioli grew up surrounded by the vineyards of the Veneto region. Inspired by his family's business, a 12-bedroom hotel and restaurant on the outskirts of Vicenza called Due Platani, he enrolled on a five-year hospitality course and found his niche in the kitchen.
Stints at local Michelin-starred restaurants Ca'Daffan and Ca'Masieri preceded a return home, where he renovated the basement at Due Platani and opened wine bar and restaurant Degò, the name being a hybrid of Italian words "degustation" and "osteria". Despite picking up plaudits for its food, wine list and stylish interior, Mioli was forced to close Degò in 2008 when the global recession hit Italy hard.
However, that closure proved far from the end of the story, and Mioli teamed up with girlfriend Elisa Bedin, her brother Marco and best friend Lorenzo Fabrello to look for a site in London, the city whose wine bars had first inspired him to open Degò in Italy.
"In my view London is the capital of food in the world and in a few years time, I firmly believe it will be the capital of wine as well," says Mioli.
The quartet scraped together investment from close to £100k from their own savings, plus Italian friends and family, and identified a site on Great Portland Street at the start of 2009.
"It is very central and there are not many restaurants like us around here," explains Mioli. "There are lots of chain restaurants so when we finally opened, our customers told us how happy they were that they no longer had to walk to Mayfair for a good restaurant."
The process of making the site ship-shape was a long one.
"It was hard," admits Bedin. "The site didn't have a licence before so we were in the courts trying to obtain one. Plus everything for the interiors came from Italy and we had to manage the refurbishment."
It wasn't until October 2010 that Degò finally opened, with Mioli installed as chef-patron, Elisa as the restaurant manager, Marco as the wine bar manager and Fabrello as the cocktail bar manager. The site swiftly picked up two AA rosettes in January 2011, followed by a commendable score of 4/10 in the 2012 Good Food Guide.
Working with financial constraints, and keen to have as much influence on the feel of the restaurant as possible, Mioli designed the interiors himself, and did a lot of the decorating.
"I have a great passion for interior design," he explains. "Vicenza is famous for its leather and marble and we wanted to bring that to London."
With the help of his father and grandfather, Mioli helped attach the 3,500 squares of leather that make up the mosaic wall, as well as inlay the red marble strips in the stairs.
"Those last few weeks [before opening] were crazy in the end," recalls Bedin.
The result has been a sleek, sexy finish, with a more casual wine bar upstairs, and a dark, moody basement restaurant, complete with red and black booths of banquettes and low-hanging, artist-designed lights.
While a sweeping statement, Italian restaurants in the UK often end up being constrained by Britons' preconceptions, according to Mioli.
"While French restaurants are allowed to be anything from bistros to classic fine dining to modern interpretations, the Brits like their Italian restaurants ‘just so'," he says, meaning quite touristy.
However, there is a movement among young Italians to escape these shackles, adds Mioli, and Degò is very much a part of that.
"It is about respecting tradition but evolving it. It's time we allowed Italian food in England to properly evolve, and not just in a few places," he explains.
As a result, Mioli has refused to let his food be constrained by any region of Italy - or by British preconceptions of Italian food. Dishes range from a modern, deconstructed take on aubergine Parmigiana, to a beef tartare which is flavoured to order and ground up front of house.
"People think of beef tartare as French, but it is available in a lot of Italian restaurants," explains Mioli. "And it is great for us as it is an amazing dish to match with wines."
Pasta is also a speciality, with highlights including duck ragu with bigoli made on the restaurant's 46-year-old bigoli machine. One real cornerstone of his cooking is the quest to make Italian food lighter.
"You need to give flavour with things other than butter and olive oil," says Mioli.
Although he imports a lot of wines from Italy, Mioli has two favourite suppliers in the UK - Passione Vino and Les Caves de Pyrene.
"Suppliers have to meet with my philosophy. There are a lot of different suppliers that pretend to know but they don't really know," he says. "But these guys give really good value and really good service. If you want to do a tasting for your customers on, say, Pecorino grapes, they will help teach you and your customers."
The restaurant has swiftly picked up a legion of locals, and the 50-seat downstairs restaurant does about 25 covers a day in summer and 40 to 50 in winter, with an average à la carte spend of about £40. A lunch menu of £15 for three courses also helps pull in midday punters.
Upstairs, the 40-seat wine bar plays host to a more casual crowd with 70 to 90 visiting daily, while a 20-seat terrace area at the front of the restaurant is a big hit in the sunshine.
Spotlight on the wine list
Degò's wine list is a labour of love for Mioli and his partners, and the care and attention was recognised by the Good Food Guide, which marked it as exceptional.
The list is built around a superb selection of Friuli, Soave, Barolo, Trentino and biodynamic Franciacorta, with a pick of Champagnes from small vineyards. Everything that goes on the list has to tie in with Mioli's philosophy on wine: "There are no mass vineyards, only boutique ones."
A lot of the wine is imported directly from Italy, with shipments of 2,400 bottles coming in four times a year, and stored in the 3,500-capacity cellar.
Pricing is also important, with accessibility a key feature and a huge amount available in the £20 to £30 bracket.
Facts and stats
Chef-patron Massimo Mioli
Restaurant manager Elisa Bodin
Capacity 110 (Restaurant 50, wine bar 40, terrace 20)
Average weekly covers 170 (300 in winter)
Average spend £40
STAFF9 (plus 4 owners)