There may be scores of pizza and pasta restaurants in London, but how many can call themselves authentically Italian? Tom Vaughan visits one that claims to be a real slice of Italy
Does London need another Italian restaurant? "That depends what kind of Italian restaurant you're referring to," says Marco Torri, head chef at Ristorante Semplice, on Blenheim Street. "My opinion is that there are lots of Italian restaurants, but not many truly good ones."
The 55-seat Ristorante Semplice was opened with the help of a third business partner in March this year by Torri and manager Gionvanni Baldino, who met while working together at Locanda Locatelli.
The interior of the site is about as Italian as it comes: the swirly reliefs on the walls, like knifed butter, and brown glossy panels were designed and assembled in Italy before being shipped over to London, and it is this dedication to bringing "il bel paese" to London that underscores most of the restaurant's endeavours.
To give authenticity to the northern Italian menu (Torri was born and raised near Milan), as much produce as possible is shipped over from Piedmont. Fassone beef is brought over to be used in the "Alba-style" carpaccio (£10.50), which, soft and delicate, is hung for four weeks and not flattened with a tenderiser. A note on the menu points out that only female cattle are used, for their tenderness.
Light chickpea soup with roast quail and lardo di Colonnata (£7.50) owes almost all its ingredients to Torri's home country and is a beautifully thin broth accompanied by pink seared quail, crumbly chickpeas and salty shavings of lardo on bread.
Risotto alla Milanese (£9.50) is a mainstay of the menu and a classic north-Italian dish, served with saffron and bone marrow. The pasta and flour that forms the backbone of the menu's pasta section makes the journey north from Mediterranean shores and appears in such guises as gnocchi filled with pesto, French beans and pine kernels (£7.50), ravioli filled with violet aubergines, served with tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella (£9) and country Piedmontese clear chicken broth served with home-made tortellini (£7.50).
Main courses, like the rest of the menu, have a firm basis in home-cooked north-Italian food. "My mother would use a lot of the ingredients that I now love, like veal, guinea fowl, rosemary and garlic," says Torri. "But in a restaurant you have to refine it. It has to be well presented and with reduced sauces. But they still remind me of Italy."
Popular meat dishes are the roasted and pan-fried Italian free-range rabbit, baby carrots, fresh Italian broad beans and artichoke sauce (£15.50) and roast fillet of black pork wrapped in Parma ham, served with courgettes, shiitake mushrooms and tomatoes (£17), balled parisienne-style, where the pork is cooked sous-vide then pan-fried to combine the tenderness of slow cooking with the crispy shell of pan-fried Parma ham.
Fish is more naturally the preserve of south Italy than the heartier north, but with five north Italians in the kitchen - purely by chance, says Torri - the fish dishes have an earthy edge to accompany their natural lightness. Skate wing comes with a potato purée made with Ravece olive oil sourced from 50km outside Naples, and a red onion fondant of near chutney-like jamminess (£14.50).
While most products are brought in from Italy, the fish, obviously, is from Britain. Pan-fried Cornish John Dory is served with baby artichokes, baby plum tomatoes and new potatoes (£18), while fillet of Cornish cod comes with beetroot sauce, baby spinach salad and hazelnuts (£15.50).
The restaurant does about 50 covers at lunch and 60 in the evening, with average spends of about £28 and £45 respectively.
Desserts are largely a selection of sorbets and ice-creams, with popular dishes including warm cheese tart with caramel ice-cream (£7) and apple fritters with cinnamon custard cream (£6.50). A signature dish of the restaurant, and a north-Italian favourite, is the nutty and hearty Conference pear cooked sous-vide with Parmesan and aromatic Sarawak pepper (£7), which Torri acclaims as "a great way to finish a meal if you're still hungry".
While the kitchen is exclusively north-Italian, Torri hopes to bring in some regional variation in the future. "You can't just do north-Italian food, especially in the summer," he says. "Maybe I will get a guy from Sicily, or from the south. They'll bring new ideas, and we'll have on dishes from all of Italy."
What's on the menu
- Grilled octopus with a salad of carrot, ginger and Sarawak pepper, £6.50
- Home-cured duck breast with rocket, pea shoots and Sardinian bread, £7.50
- Thinly sliced violet artichokes, rocket salad and Parmesan, £8.50
- Paccheri from Gragnano, Herdwick lamb and fresh chilli, £9.50
- Country Piedmontese chicken breast cooked sous-vide with grilled vegetables and Parmesan shavings, £13
- Tagliata di Fassone beef, French beans and a mixed salad, £19
- Domori chocolate tart with bitter almond sauce, £8
- Chestnut panna cotta with a kumquat salad, £6.50
- Selection of Italian cheeses, served with home-made bread and marmalade, £9
Ristorante Semplice, 10 Blenheim Street, London W1S 1LJ. Tel: 020 7495 1509