Zucca chef-proprieter Sam Harris has created a dining environment that is stylish and welcoming, and with generous portions of simple Italian cuisine it's also great value for money. Mark Lewis reports.
Reviewers have taken to describing Zucca as a River Café, but without the River Café prices. The comparison bears scrutiny, and not just because Zucca chef-proprietor Sam Harris spent time in the legendary Hammersmith kitchen. The emphasis in this Bermondsey venue's open kitchen is on generous portions of simple Italian dishes based around seasonal produce. Fish, seafood and vegetables are high up in the mix.
Harris has also channelled his four-year experience as an Egon Ronay inspector into the development of Zucca, resulting in a dining environment that is stylish and buzzy, but also intimate and welcoming. "I wanted to create a place I'd be happy to go to myself, either alone for a couple of courses and a glass of wine, or with a group: somewhere friendly and unstuffy, with great service and great value for money," he says.
Zucca's value for money is attracting diners in their droves. Their chatter ricochets off the room's broad glass frontage and bare cement walls to deafening effect. Happily, generous bread baskets give the tabletops some soft furnishing to soak up the noise. Plump pillows of ciabatta and deliciously salty, heavily oiled focaccia come with a splosh of softly spiced Planeta olive oil and a heaty anchovy, chilli, rosemary and onion dip.
With its smattering of pasta, fish and meat dishes, the menu quickly gets to the point. This is honest, lusty food with few frills. "Some chefs put too much on a plate," Harris says. "I prefer to take away, not add. Two or three key components on a plate are enough for me. It's all about having the confidence to back off from a dish."
It's also about sourcing great produce to start with. Harris name checks Chef Direct of Bristol; west London free-range organic butcher HG Walter; and Feeling Fruity, run by Sardinian Paolo Puddu out of New Covent Garden Market.
The menu's largest section is given over to antipasti, whose big flavours are meant for sharing. A carpaccio of translucent sea bream comes puddled with yellow olive oil; if its red splashes of chilli give it the faintest hint of the East, the squeeze of Amalfi lemon plants the dish right back in the Mediterranean. Harris likes to get this plate out to table first. "It's a lovely, clean way to start a meal," he says.
Well-salted grilled octopus tasting of the fire and of the sea are complemented by the peppery bite of its rocket garnish. And in the finocchiona and fennel salad, the ooze of fennel salami does battle with the crunch of raw garden peas and fennel, and the tartness of capers.
No antipasti order is complete without the house speciality. Zucca means pumpkin in Italian, and the bowls of zucca fritti that fly out of the kitchen are quickly becoming a signature dish. These batons of pumpkin in a tempura batter are tossed in rock salt and sage leaves and arrive light as air. It turns out the dish is a happy accident. "We were short on courgettes one Sunday," Harris admits.
A glass of Pieropan Soave ‘La Rocca', aromatic and buttery with an enjoyable note of phosphorus, is versatile enough to work across all starters.
Mains are substantial enough to leave you regretting that last square of focaccia. All are visually appealing, especially so the grilled squid, which forms a tricolore with its rocket and chilli accompaniment. Nutty jersey royals pan fried in olive oil add a fourth colour to the plate. Harris likes to work English ingredients such as Jerseys, runner beans and samphire on to his menu: "This is an Englishman's idea of Italian food," he explains.
A glass of Andrea Oberto Dolcetto d'Alba red is light enough not to overpower the squid; but a big, velvety Banfi Brunello di Montalcino is required for the grilled calves' liver, lentils and speck and salsa verde. The dish's lentils are moistened by a serious glug of house olive oil; while the green vinaigrette cuts through the sweetness of the liver's lattice of charring.
Desserts change daily, but could include a moist apricot and almond tart or a panna cotta that comes moon-pale but for the dark smudge of vanilla seeds on top of it.
The touch of salt in a glass of Donnafugata Passito di Pantelleria cuts through the sweetness of both.
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
- Radish and celery salad with parmesan, £3.95
- Roasted beetroot, shallots and brunet cheese, £4.15
- Homemade pappardelle with peas and pea shoots, £6.50/£8.50
- Fillet of turbot with samphire, sea aster and capers, £14.50
- Braised lamb with Piedmont peppers, chickpeas and marjoram, £11.95
- Slow cooked rabbit with pancetta, sage and polenta, £11.95
- Cherry and almond tart, £3.95
- Affogato, £3.95
- Walnut cannoli with fresh raspberries, £4.25