Food: Viva Riva

It is Fay Maschler's favourite restaurant, and Andrew Lloyd Webber would choose to have his last meal on earth here. Michael Bateman is let into a few of Riva's secrets
Click to follow
SOME TIME this November the quiet country road that is Castelnau in Barnes will throb again to the roar of London's rush-hour traffic. For this is when Hammersmith Bridge reopens.

This is bad news for residents, who have enjoyed almost rural peace, but good news for Riva in Barnes, one of the country's best restaurants, which has been isolated from many of its fans for too long.

Riva is, like few other Italian restaurants, the recipient of dozens of awards, and a favourite haunt of the late, great Elizabeth David, author of one of the best books on Italian cooking. It's a place which food critics single out for their own custom - it is favoured by the likes of The Food Programme's Derek Cooper, Lindsey Bareham, Simon Hopkinson, and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber (he'd choose to have his last meal on earth here, their fonduta with white truffles). Fay Maschler, reluctant to admit preferences, declared on Desert Island Discs that this was her favourite restaurant.

What is so special about Riva? In vain you'll search for a dish with tomato sauce. There's no pizza, and not a lot of pasta. Instead there's polenta and rice, in the form of risotto. Riva's is the stylish cooking of Lombardy and Venice in the north, a world away from Naples.

When Riva opened its doors, its most highly praised dish was risotto nero, a sensuous plate of velvety black rice, which is flavoured and coloured with the ink from a cuttlefish. Nine years later, it has become one of the trendy dishes of the capital.

At Riva, though, it exists no more. "Everyone is doing it," complains the autocratic owner, Andrea Riva. "Customers have been saying, aha, did you get this idea from Le Caprice?" Andrea is too proud to say, no, they all got it from me. So he simply took it off the menu.

Andrea Riva is one of three brothers from Lake Como, where the family have a famous hotel restaurant, Locanda La Felice. He's a classicist and linguist, and planned a career in law, but other interests (among them backgammon and racing motor cars) distracted him.

He found himself managing a restaurant in a cellar in Chelsea, called Lloyds. Then he opened a second restaurant, Pier 31, with partners including Lord Lichfield.

The initial menu was Franco-Italian. "I remember, around 1987, I had a party and served risotto nero. Only two people, both Italians, ate it." Disillusioned, he hired a Japanese chef and changed the restaurant style to Franco-Japanese.

It wasn't until 1991 that he felt the time was ripe to offer authentic regional Italian food (Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray had by then established a precedent at the River Cafe with Tuscan dishes). Among the several dozen authentic north Italian dishes Andrea introduced (which included the risotto nero) were skate with fava beans, fonduta (melted cheese) with white truffles, tortellini in brodo and tagliolini with a cold tomato and basil sauce, a summer dish (which one customer sent back, complaining that the sauce wasn't hot).

He is partly responsible for introducing the British public to many prime ingredients for which Italy is famous: Parma and San Daniele hams and the princely culatello, a cut from the rump, marinated in white wine after curing; bresaola, the air-dried beef fillet (which he serves with goats' cheese and mostarda di Cremona, the hot pickles), and burrata, little mozarella cheeses stuffed with cream. From his own region, Lake Como, he brought the local gnocchi and an unusual buckwheat pasta, pizzoccheri.

Andrea himself has never wanted to cook. "You know what needs to be done, but you don't have to do it yourself. It's a terrible job. It's hot. You sweat." So, to launch Riva, Andrea set out to find a chef who was a pure soul, uncorrupted by general commercial practice. He found Francesco Zanchetta, a talented young chef from Friuli.

Andrea was under the impression that Francesco was 26 and was astonished to discover, a year later, that he was a mere 21. But what could he say? Francesco's star, and Riva's, was by this time burning brightly.

Francesco cut his teeth at Harry's Bar in Venice, cooking food that thrilled him ("first-class ingredients treated with respect"). One of his great loves is the Venetian way with seafood, especially their delicate risotti, made with sweet crayfish (see opposite), or else with lobster, crab, calamari or clams.

NEXT WEEK: the new kitchen essential


PASTA The perfect way to avoid hassle (and overcooked pasta) at a dinner party is to part-cook it in advance. Use plenty of boiling, salted water and cook for three-quarters of the usual time, then drain under the cold tap. For example, for spaghetti with a 12-minute cooking time, boil it for eight minutes, then drain and reserve in a pan, without water. When ready, plunge the pasta into a pan of boiling water. After it reboils, allow 30 seconds and it's done.

POLENTA Ignore the purists who say you should use only artesanal polenta (which takes 60 minutes to cook). Modern instant polenta is excellent. It's a tremendously versatile product; you can eat it runny or firm, hot or cold. It keeps for three days in the fridge. Brush with olive oil and grill slices on a griddle, or cut into chunks and cook in a cheese sauce in the oven, like lasagne or gnocchi.

BALSAMIC VINEGAR Be sceptical about allegedly old balsamic vinegars, which can cost as much as pounds 60 a bottle. You can take a cheap (say pounds 2) half-litre bottle of balsamic vinegar, and boil the contents until they reduce to about a tenth of the volume. The result will be intense, thick and syrupy and a few drops will suffice to infuse a dish. The remainder can be stored in a miniature bottle for future use.

SALT Ignore those people who tell you not to add salt until the end of cooking. You need salt to bring out the flavours of your food, especially with something like a tomato sauce. It is best to put in half of the salt at the beginning and half at the end.

PEAS Unless you can pick your own garden peas, fresh shop-bought peas aren't better than frozen. They lose their sweetness soon after being picked, and are usually three days old in the shops. Add a little sugar to peas when cooking to enhance their natural sweetness. They are also delicious cooked with little cubes of boiled ham.


Serves 4

240g/10oz Vialone Nano risotto rice

800g/1lb7oz freshwater crayfish (with heads on)

200g/8oz perch fillets (optional)

200g/8oz frogs' legs (optional)

200g/8oz fresh peas

100g/4oz butter

4 tablespoons olive oil

12 onion

1 carrot

1 stick of celery

1 glass white wine

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1litre/2 pints of water for stock (see below)

1 bay leaf

6 black peppercorns

4 spring onions, white only, chopped

Boil the crayfish in one litre (two pints) of salted water for two minutes. Drain, reserving the water. Remove their tails. Return the heads to the pan and simmer for half an hour to produce a stock, adding the bay leaf, peppercorns and chopped spring onions. Strain stock, and keep hot.

Chop the carrot, celery and onion and fry in a large pan with the oil and 40g (112oz) of the butter. Add perch and frogs' legs (if using) and fry until golden. Remove and set aside, keeping warm.

Put the risotto rice and the peas in the pan and fry on a medium heat for a minute (this is the tostatura). Add the wine and cook until it evaporates. Add just enough stock to cover the rice, and cook until it is absorbed. Continue adding stock by the ladleful until rice is cooked (about 16 minutes). The centre should be al dente (slightly resistant to the teeth) and the rice mixture loose, almost runny. If you don't have enough stock, use additional boiling water.

Add the crayfish, and remove from the heat. Add the parsley and the rest of the butter and stir until creamy (the mantecatura).

To serve, place the perch fillets and frogs' legs on top. Garnish with some of the crayfish heads.