A menu in praise of Italian ‘peasant' cuisine combines rustic creations with refined ingredients in London's boho Exmouth Market. James Stagg reports
Paesan, the first solo venture of Anthony Brown, formerly of Pasta Brown in Covent Garden, aims to provide cucina povera (which literally translates as "poor kitchen") to the well-heeled locals of London's Exmouth Market.
The term originated in Italy, where peasants proudly make use of every scrap of an animal.
In essence, it is about making high-quality food with simple and available produce. At Paesan, head chef Mattia Antonioni has developed the menu in partnership with Brown, focusing on simple, rustic cooking.
The restaurant itself features a stripped-down look of exposed brickwork and steel with classroom style chairs, reminiscent of Russell Norman's Polpo, where Antonioni plied his trade before taking on Paesan. Having moved from Italy eight years ago, he has also worked in the kitchens of the Ivy and Assaggi in Notting Hill.
"Polpo was a big experience for me," Antonioni explains.
"It was a lot of fun and I learned loads. I've been lucky since I came to London. "I came over with Antony a few months before Paesan opened. He already had the concept and I became really passionate about it. It was the ideal opportunity for me."
Antonioni's menu of hot and cold dishes is devised along the lines of Italian antipasti, followed by pasta and a main course. Diners can choose three antipasti for £11 from a list of meat, cheese and vegetable options, including lardo, burrata and peperonata.
There is also a choice of sharing plates, including Calabrian trippa and steak ragu, chilli and pecorino (£8) and burrata and aubergine caponata (£8). Much of the menu is written in Italian, which even in cosmopolitan Clerkenwell has given rise to some confusion.
"Front of house have to work hard, as there is quite a lot of Italian on the menu," Antonioni says. "We are going to try to use Italian less, as it's not always easy to understand every word."
For those struggling to choose, there is the option of a chef's tasting menu at £20 for three courses or £30 for five. "We thought we'd pick dishes from the menu for people who don't know what to choose," Antonioni adds.
In terms of main courses, the menu is split into pizza fritta, pasta, pesce and carne. "For the pizza fritta, the dough is fried before the topping is added and it is finished under the salamander," Antonioni says. "It's got a thin crispness. We use traditional sourdough with wholewheat flour, which creates a particular structure."
One of the most popular dishes is the rich and flavoursome hand-cut pappardelle with braised rabbit ragu. "It's a recipe my grandmother did," Antonioni explains. "It's a tomato sauce with carrots, onion and celery, along with rabbit, oregano, sage and crispy pancetta. We cook it for a long time with the rabbit jointed and cooked on the bone to give it more flavour. At the end of cooking we debone and chop the rabbit and return it to the sauce."
The inspiration may be relatively rustic, but the ingredients are certainly more fitting for this cosmopolitan corner of London. With neighbours in Exmouth Market like Caravan and Morito, Paesan doesn't want to be seen as the poor relation.
Sample dishes from the menu
Calabrian trippa and steak ragu, chilli and pecorino £8
Dandelion, truffle pecorino and hazelnuts £6
Peperonata, olives and tallegio pizza fritta £8
Fritto misto - calamari, red mullet £9
Roast lamb with fagioli uccelletto £12
Fennel sausage with castelfranco lentils and soffrito £10
Flourless chocolate & almond moretto with mascarpone £7
Amalfi sorbet £5
Fregolotta & vin santo £7
2 Exmouth Market
London EC1R 4PX
020 7837 7139