Yet the extraordinary thing is that, for all its rustic Italian cooking, not one of the River Caf's staff is Italian. The owners (who are also the cooks) are Rose Gray, who is English, and Ruth Rogers, who is American. This is not the only contradiction: a caf it certainly isn't, for a start. Do you know any caf that prices a main course at £18?
The River Caf is all about style. In fact, it probably owes as much to California as it does to the Mediterranean - but Italian country cooking does happen to be the style whose time has come. It fits in exactly with current notions of a healthy diet: country bread soups, plenty of pasta, rice and polenta, char-grilled vegetables, grilled fish and game. (Turn a blind eye to those wickedly rich, delicious desserts.)
What Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers have done is create a deceptively simple style that makes a virtue of food which is free of disguise or complication. Their techniques are simple; they have raised char-grilling to an art form, they have exalted polenta into an object of desire. By using only the very best and freshest ingredients, the two of them have transformed and elevated what is essentially home cooking.
Ruth Rogers is the wife of this year's Reith lecturer, Sir Richard Rogers, the architect who designed the Pompidou Centre in Paris and Lloyds of London. The River Caf is part of his riverside headquarters. The site is hemmed in by the crawling traffic of Fulham Palace Road on one side, and the river on the other, facing the twin towers of Harrods' repository. You must negotiate a confusing maze of roads to reach it, only to find with dismay that there are no free parking spaces. No wonder Sir Rich- ard's Reith lectures dwelt on the horror of the motor car, prime enemy of sustainable cities.
Arriving at the wire gates protecting the restaurant "compound", you may be stopped by a strangely uniformed figure with long hair and Dracula cloak. Friend or foe? Can this be the costume of a Hammersmith traffic warden? No, he is one of Sir Richard's mercenaries. On orders from above, he whisks your car away to a Safe Place. Serving the community, see.
Sir Richard's HQ was formerly a wharfside warehouse for Duckham's Oil, which he converted into an enviable set of offices. He also designed the restaurant, creating a sense of enormous space inside, using mirrors on the inside wall to draw in the view of the open fields on the south bank. What he didn't choose to do was insulate the ceiling. So when only two people were dining there , it rang with the clamour of a full restaurant. Fine. When the restaurant was full, however, you could hear every conversation in it except your own. Last year, the restaurant was closed for a face- lift - and now, thanks to a new sound-absorbent ceiling and soft blue carpet, you can actually hear yourselves speak while enjoying the fabulous food.
The restaurant is open and friendly, with Ruth and Rose meeting and greeting. They are dressed in starched cooks' whites, and could almost be religieuses pursuing their vocation. The staff are even less typical of the service industry - self-confident, handsome, charismatic young men and women who could easily be running a club. They don't miss a single trick, yet there have been complaints over the years about casual service. I can only say these customers don't understand the situation.
So where do they come from, the staff? If you play at being David Attenborough and listen to their monosyllabic cries of "ab" "roo" and "zad" you may begin to get the picture. They are called Ossie, Lucy, Dante, Sam, Zad, Roo, Ed and Ab (Ab being short for Abe which evidently isn't considered short enough). None trained at catering college. Indeed, many are the children of Sir Richard (by his first marriage) or Rose, or are their school-friends. So there is more to the River Caf than Italian cooking.
Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray are signed-up members of a gang of movers and shakers who have changed restaurant cooking in the capital over the last decade - Alastair Little, Sally Clarke, Simon Hopkinson (of Bibendum), Rowley Leigh and Simon Slater (Kensington Place) and Jeremy King (Le Caprice). Rose and Ruth are unlikely additions to the list. Neither had any training as a cook, and they came to this shared love of regional Italian food from very different backgrounds.
Ruth's father was a doctor in upstate New York. In her home there was a tradition of good food, though she was too young to know her Hungarian grandmother, who made inspired strudels and pastries. "She was one of those who live to eat, not eat to live." Coming from a small country town, says Ruth, where restaurants were humble, it was a big thrill to be taken on an outing to New York City to a play, concert or the opera, followed by a meal in a restaurant. "I loved the theatricality of restaurants."
Rose, for her part, came from an intensely food-conscious family. Her grandfather, a former president of the Royal Horticultural Society, had been a serious gourmand. "He was one of the greediest of people," she says. "My mother was traumatised by this. She reacted against her parents' self-indulgence and be-came a minimalist cook. She might eat only one egg, but it would be cooked in the best way."
Both Rose and Ruth have dire memories of their first experiences of eating Italian. Ruth remembers Italian food in New York as plates of spaghetti and meat balls with heavy tomato sauce. "Italian food was translated to inexpensive ingredients like pizza cheese." Rose, for her part, remembers what London's Italian restaurants were like: "There was always boiled artichoke served cold, cold fish salads, chicken Kiev - dishes I have never come across in Italy." Restaurants like these tried to make up for their culinary deficiencies with showy service. The size of the pepper mill was always in inverse ratio to the quality of the cooking.
Both women had their eyes opened to food by their first visits to France. Rose travelled widely in Normandy, and was so impressed by the crperies she encountered that she bought three mobile stoves for £20 each and set up a crpe stall in west London's Portobello Road.
Ruth, by this time married to Sir Richard, found herself in Paris where he was working on the Pompidou centre. "We had a tiny flat," she recalls, "and ate out all the time." But her affair with French cooking was not to last. Sir Richard's mother is Italian, and it was only a matter of time before Ruth fell under her spell. "In Florence in the 1970s," she says, "I remember tasting for the first time these wonderful rustic dishes - bread soups and bean soups, pasta and polenta, proper pomodoro. I was converted. In Paris a piece of fish is masked and disguised. Here the food was simple, clean and pure. I became increasingly uninterested in French food - not that there's anything wrong with it. Once I had eaten Italian home cooking, though, I didn't want to eat anything else."
Rose had also succumbed to the magic of Italy and in 1981 moved to Tuscany with her artist husband, David MacIlwaine, so he could paint. There, she would be able to write a book on pasta. "I didn't finish the book," she says, "but I did discover how good a bowl of vegetable soup could be." The reason? She, too, knew Sir Richard's mother, Dada (having been a friend of his first wife, Sue, at art college), and spent time with her in Florence. By now, it is becoming fairly clear where the inspiration for the River Caf came from.
The River Caf opened in 1987 and was a success from the start. Fay Maschler of the London Evening Standard voted it an instant hit, and the Ronay Guide and The Good Food Guide were quick to endorse her view. "We were told how hard and tough it would be," says Ruth, "how competitive. But everyone was very supportive." So-called rivals sent their favoured customers. "Simon Hopkinson brought in Elizabeth David." The "rival" restaurateurs also offered helpful advice. Ruth remembers, "Alastair Little said, `Hey, you guys. Have you ever thought of warming the plates?'"
At first some people didn't know what to make of this phenomenon. Lesley Forbes, writing in the Sunday Correspondent, expressed shock that they had introduced polenta to sophisticated London restaurant tables, bearing in mind that in northern Italy it was essentially peasant food, a mere porridge made with ground maize. "Soon after we opened," says Ruth, "we had a call from the magazine Elle. "`We understand you do peasant food,' they said." Peasant food, indeed.
Well, there's quick-cook polenta and there are grains of polenta which run though your fingers in a golden shower. "Ours comes from Piedmont where we'd been visiting Aldo Conterno who makes our Barolo wine. We tasted it in a restaurant but they wouldn't tell us where they got it. But Aldo found out for us, and took us to the mill. It's the best we've ever tasted." In the early days, they were going to and fro bringing in often quite simple ingredients they couldn't get here, lugging back sacks of good quality borlotti, fava and canellini beans.
The two women were trailblazers, opening up lines of communication. Now, happily, it's possible for them to get most of their supplies in London - the good olive oils, prosciutto, pancetta, cheeses.
It was important to have Italian vegetables and herbs from the start. Ruth and Rose even grew rocket, sorrel, thyme and borage outside the restaurant. Eventually they built up local supply lines. In Southampton, Sunnyfield Organics grows special vegetables for them, often from seeds that Rose and Ruth have brought back from Italy - squashes, radicchio, Swiss chard, cavolo nero (a long-leafed dark cabbage). They are major users of rocket, the bitter, mustardy herb rucola, which they use abundantly in salads and as a garnish. Two Sicilian brothers with a nursery on the M25 near Heathrow grow it for them, as well as a daily supply of yellow zucchini blooms in season.
And they have an offbeat supplier in Suffolk, Adrian Baran, who drops off boxes of vegetables in the middle of the night. "Everything is grown for taste. He grows wonderful white peaches in a walled garden, and a dozen different kinds of zucchini."
What next? Ruth and Rose have just installed a ceramic Tuscan-style wood- fired oven, to give them the option of slow cooking. It's a rare occasion when they add a new dish to the menu - they claim with some pride never to have invented a single one. "We're just keen to do traditional recipes properly." They took their recipes from ordinary homes, they say. Their book, The River Caf Cook Book (published by Ebury Press on 4 May), returns them there.
THE ART OF CHAR-GRILLING
The first recipes we have selected from The River Caf Cook Book feature char-grilling, a style of cooking Rose and Ruth have made their own. It is a simple, quick and healthy way of cooking, as suitable for vegetables as fish (especially squid which needs to be cooked quickly), poultry and meat. The cooking of meat is accelerated if first marinated in oils and vinegars.
What makes char-grilling different from home grilling is as much the use of charcoal, as the intense, even, upward heat compared with the less effective downward heat of home grills, whether electric or gas.
It is possible to use barbecues or grids with volcanic rock bases to get a similar effect: or you can buy a ridged grill pan from a specialist kitchen shop which you use on top of the stove, making sure it is evenly hot before you start cooking. All these recipes can be done under a conventional grill too.
CHAR-GRILLED PEPPERS WITH ANCHOVY AND CAPERS
PEPERONI CON ACCIUGHE E CAPPERI
Grill the whole peppers on all sides. When the skins are entirely black, place the peppers in a plastic bag and seal. When cool, remove the blackened skin by rubbing the peppers in your hands. Do not worry if they fall apart. Then remove the seeds and cores.
Salted anchovies and capers can be obtained from Italian stores and need to be rinsed. If not available, use tinned anchovies and bottled capers. Layer the peppers with slivers of garlic, capers, anchovies, basil, black pepper and a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil. The final layer should have all the ingredients visible. Serve with bruschetta (toasted country bread, such as ciabatta).
MARINATED GRILLED VEGETABLES
VERDURA MISTA IN GRATICOLA
Cut the aubergine lengthways into eighths and place in a colander with some sea salt. Cut the zucchini lengthways into sixths or eighths depending on size, add some salt, and place in a separate colander. Leave both to drain of any bitter juices, for a minimum of 30 minutes. Rinse and dry well.
Break the skinned peppers into sixths, and place on a dish.
Place the aubergine and zucchini pieces on the hottest part of the grill and grill on both sides, seasoning at the same time with salt and pepper.The aubergine in particular requires care - it needs to be cooked, but should not burn. To test, gently press with a finger; if it resists, it is not done. When cooked, keep separate with the zucchini.
Mix olive oil, lemon juice and garlic, and pour over the individual vegetables, gently lifting to coat them. Combine all the seasoned vegetables in a large bowl with the basil leaves, turn over once, and taste for seasoning - it should be robust.
GRILLED SQUID WITH
CALAMARI AI FERRI CON PEPERONCINI
Clean the squid by cutting the body open to make a flat piece. Scrape out the guts, keeping the tentacles in their bunches but removing the eyes and mouth. Using a serrated knife, score the inner side of the flattened squid body with parallel lines 1 cm (12 in) apart, and then equally apart the other way to make crosshatching.
To make the sauce, put the chopped chilli in a bowl and cover with about 2.5 cm (l in) of the oil. Season with salt and pepper.
Place the squid (including the tentacles) scored side down on a very hot grill, season with salt and pepper and grill for 1-2 minutes. Turn the squid pieces over; they will immediately curl up, by which time they will be cooked.
Make Oil and Lemon Dressing with 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. (These quantities are a guide; you may have to adjust by tasting.) Toss the rocket in the dressing. Arrange a squid body and tentacles on each plate with some rocket. Place a little of the chilli on the squid, serve with lemon quarters.
BEEF FILLET WITH SALMORIGLIO
CARPACCIO CON SALMORIGLIO
We char-grill the whole fillet just to form a crust adding flavour to the raw beef.
Preheat a grill to very hot. Rub the fillet with salt and pepper, then briefly grill, turning continuously to blacken the outsides, but making sure that the centre remains raw.
Slice the cold fillet into 1cm (12in) slices on a board. Using a large pointed cooking knife, press and spread the slices to make them thin and lacy. The grilled edges will hold the pieces together.
To make the Thyme Salmoriglio, pound 4 level tablespoons fresh thyme with 1 teaspoon sea salt until completely crushed. Add 2 tablespoons lemon juice. Pour 8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil slowly into the mixture. Add a little freshly ground black pepper.
Spread out the slices on the plate, and spoon over the thyme sauce. Lightly toss the rocket leaves with the Oil and Lemon Dressing.
Panzanella is a traditional Tuscan summer salad. At its most simple this dish consists just of strong white bread, green peppery olive oil and delicious ripe summer tomatoes. The addition of peppers, anchovies, olives and capers makes it more delicious and interesting.
Cut the bread into rough, thick slices, and place in a large bowl. Skin, halve and seed the tomatoes, into a sieve over a bowl to retain the tomato juice. Season the juice with the garlic and some black pepper, then add 250 ml (8 fl oz) of the olive oil and 2-3 tablespoons of the red wine vinegar. Pour the seasoned tomato juices over the bread and toss until the bread has absorbed all the liquid. Depending on the staleness of the bread, more liquid may be required, in which case add more olive oil.
Grill the peppers whole until blackened all over, then skin, seed and cut into eighths lengthways. If using, grill the chillies until blackened, then skin, seed and chop finely. Salted anchovies and capers can be obtained from Italian stores and need to be rinsed. If not available, use tinned anchovies and bottled capers. After rinsing, soak the capers in remaining red wine vinegar. Separate anchovies into fillets.
In a large dish, make a layer of some of the soaked bread, and top with some of all the other ingredients, then cover with another layer of bread and continue until all the bread and other ingredients have been used up. The final layer should have the peppers, tomatoes, capers, anchovies and olives all visible. Leave for an hour at room temperature before serving with more extra virgin olive oil.
Trim and wash the carrots, and slice them diagonally into slices about 3 mm (18 in) thick. Slice the garlic cloves in half.
In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat about 50-85 ml (2-3 fl oz) of the olive oil or enough to cover the base of the pan completely. When hot, add one layer only of carrot slices - you will be cooking in batches. Fry gently, turning each piece over as it begins to brown. As you turn, season with salt and pepper, and add a proportion - about 2 tablespoons - of the garlic slices. As the garlic and carrots brown, remove using a slotted spoon. Add a further batch of carrots to the oil and cook in the same way. Add more oil only when the carrots have absorbed what is in the pan.
These carrots have a caramelised appearance, and remain separate. The thick pieces of garlic should remain distinct.
POTATO AND PANCETTA GRATIN
PATATE AL FORNO CON PANCETTA
Preheat the oven to 190C/375F/Gas 5. Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the pancetta over a medium heat. Stir in the garlic, add the sage, cook for a minute and remove from the heat.
Slice each potato lengthways down the middle so that you are left with two thick slices. Place in a large bowl and add the pancetta and oil mixture and the cream. Season with salt and pepper, and toss together. Put in a baking dish, making sure the potato, pancetta and sage are evenly distributed, cover with foil and cook in the oven for 40 minutes. About 20 minutes before the end of cooking, remove foil so the surface of the potatoes becomes brown. Add a little Parmesan 5 minutes before the end. !