Giorgio Locatelli loves to feed people. He'd have empty tables in the dining-room and standing-room only in the kitchen if he were allowed. He may work the stove as fluidly as a pianist running his fingers over the keys, but it's the eating rather than the cooking that motivates him. Quite possibly this is the real difference between Italian and French chefs.
Interestingly, for a boy who grew up in the family restaurant in northern Italy, Locatelli trained in fine French kitchens including The Savoy in London and La Tour d'Argent in Paris. By 1995 he was cleverly fusing the French precision he had learnt with the Italian cooking of his childhood to spectacular effect at Zafferano in Knightsbridge. Wary of Italian restaurants in London, I was slow to go. But when the waiter said the risotto of nettles would take a good 30 minutes, I cried hallelujah. True risotto is one thing that must be made to order, the stock incorporated gradually, the starch of the rice binding each grain. Otherwise, it's just a nice rice dish.
Now at Locanda Locatelli, Giorgio is fulfilling several of his dreams: an elegant, discreet dining space hugged by sinuous banquettes and booths, his name on the door, his wife heading up the floor, and a dream-come-true kitchen to enable him to do whatever he wants to do.
This includes sending out a vase of hand-rolled grissini as soon as you arrive. The long tapering fingers are lightly touched with parmigiano, and provide performance art for the table. Next is an overflowing basket of house-made breads, prepared in league with the gifted young baker Dan Lepard. Then good extra virgin olive oil is poured into a bowl, ready for you to season with sea salt and pepper.
In other words, there is something here that is missing in nine out of 10 upmarket London restaurants – a sense of generosity. I'll say it again – hallelujah.
The ravioli all'ossobuco, linguine alle vongole and tagliatelle with sardines and sultanas will just have to wait. Instead I start with a little bowl of soft, gentle gnocchetti (£8), small hand-formed potato dumplings sauced with a light jus and shredded with thinly sliced artichoke. It is a simple study in autumn browns; the sauce coating rather than swamping, and the raw vegetable adding texture.
Blow-by-blow: a likeable starter of mondeghini di verza (£5) is motherly cooking let loose in the dining-room – small cabbage-wrapped, herb-scented meat-balls served with leaves of golden pan-fried risotto cake. Insalata di biete alla parmigiana (£5.50) is little more than the dreaded crumbed cheese croquette on a swirl of wilted green leaves.
An undulating wave of quail risotto (£11/£15) is correctly made; slow to move on the plate, creamy without cream, and luxurious yet restorative, with half a boned quail pressed into it like a celebrity's hands into wet cement.
The all-Italian wine-list is a pleasure, with at least 20 bottles under £20. Pelissero Casot is a pleasingly fruit-driven 1997 Barbera d'Alba (£29) from Piemonte, which has great sympathy for the quail.
The main courses have a north-Italian simplicity to them, with a twist. So pork fillet comes with a mustard fruit crust; monkfish with a walnut and caper sauce; and duck breast with broccoli, chilli and farro.
There is a return to the age-old technique of agrodolce, using sweet and sour flavours to excite the palate. Luccio in carpione (£15.50) is the Lombardian equivalent of escabeche. A meaty pike fillet is fried, marinated with oil, wine and vinegar, herbs and carrots, and served warm. The marinade sets the flesh, leaving it with a good, clean taste and the tingly height of vinegar.
The downside? Desserts are fancy, coming as if from a different kitchen. So-called torta di ricotta is deconstructed into dollops of lusciously light ricotta cream and lemon meringue mousse separated by thin coconut wafers. Nice, but it might have been easier to just do a great torta. A semifreddo of gingerbread and mandarin is less enticing, the gingerbread being rather akin to moist underfelt.
Being joined to the Churchill Intercontinental Hotel gives the restaurant a second, anti-climactic entrance from the lobby that deposits you far from the main meet/ greet/cloakroom entrance on Seymour Street. Staff in these early days can forget a wine order and be slow with the bill, but are also smart enough to make up for it with a smile and a gesture.
As a disclaimer of sorts, I should point out that I have recently worked with Giorgio Locatelli on a forthcoming book project. This has had no effect on the review experience or the score, because I'm not that kind of boy.
Locanda Locatelli is, for me, London's most north-Italian restaurant, and at the same time its best, effortlessly combining a level of luxury with a sense of comfort. Love those chairs: generous, padded, and with an inbuilt swivel to help you in and out with some semblance of grace. And love that corner booth table for two with opera box views that looks designed for Mr and Mrs Guy Ritchie – who are indeed sitting at it tonight.
And love that at last there is a great new restaurant in London designed to offer comfortable, civilised dining at prices that are not greedy and grasping. Hallelujah. *
Locanda Locatelli, 8 Seymour Street, London W1, tel: 020 7935 9088. Around Â£110 including wine and service for two. Open Mon-Sat for lunch and dinnerReuse content