Sometimes you just want to eat something simple, like pasta pesto. There's a reason why so many harried parents give their children pasta pesto, and why their children seem to live on it. It's a soft, squishy, tasty comfort blanket.
The other day, I wanted to eat pasta pesto. It had been a tough day, and I just couldn't face either inhaling a burger or committing to a seven-course tasting menu. But there's little more upsetting than bad pasta in a restaurant, and it's all too common. I decided to try a new Italian place in west London that opened recently with not much fanfare and in a slightly odd location. What Kensington lacks in cutting-edge foodie adventures, it often makes up for in steadfast quality (Kitchen W8; Clarke's).
Acciuga (anchovy) looks as if it has always been there, to be honest – its muted colour palette, equally muted artwork, starched linen and posh flatware speak of generations of serving the well-heeled Holland Park set – but it opened only three weeks ago.
When we go in, the front few tables of the long, narrow space are empty. The manager indicates one of these, but I'd rather sit up at the back, in between a French family nattering away happily over antipasti and a couple who look and sound as though they'd given Cook the night off. The menu could not be more old-school Italian if it tried – yes, pasta pesto, but also vitel toné, octopus, white-sausage ragu, stuffed courgette flowers. Oh, I do hope it's good, because there's nowhere to hide on a menu this straight.
It is good. It's delightfully good. The vitel toné – wafer-thin veal covered in tuna sauce – is pretty (not easy for a great blob of fishy mayonnaise), with tiny fronds of cress dotted across the surface, and it tastes dreamy. Actually, this is the comfort blanket. Mr M's baked and fried anchovies are divinely fresh and come with a witty anchovy tin opened to reveal a punchy tomato sauce. At £10 each, the antipasti dishes are expensive, but are generous and of a quality that can command the price.
The primi dishes (my favourite, most carb-laden part of any Italian menu, all at £14) don't disappoint either. There is trofie pasta with pesto, there is lasagne Albese-style (with that white-sausage ragu). The straight-outta-Liguria manager lovingly describes the care with which chef commissions the pesto to be made in Genoa, using only local ingredients. The tangle of twisted trofie (try saying that with your mouth full) is bliss – aromatic and with that tang of good Parmesan and pecorino, and at the exact point of done-ness. Some unadvertised snips of green bean and asparagus add interest, not that any is needed. The lasagne is on the free-form side, with very good meat sprawling across the bowl. Nothing needs seasoning, and chef doesn't have salt, pepper or extra cheese to hand. Confident, that.
We share a pud from a list we ask the waiter to describe – with comic results. Bavarese al caffe is, er, "coffee, Bavarian". OK, then. Berries plumcake is "cake, berries…". We'll have the latter. It is exactly that: sponge cake with some plums in it. From an unfinished wine list, we have a couple of glasses of Montepulciano that do the job, but I want to go back when what I'm told will be a comprehensive array of Italy's best wines are available.
Authenticity is a word often bandied about in the restaurant trade, and not always with honourable intentions. Some of the wilder hybrids we've seen in recent years (Japanese-Brazilian?) just can't be authentic, and other gaffs just stretch the truth, with mozzarella from Holland or "fresh" squid from the frozen catering block.
Acciuga is, it seems to me, authentic. Honest food from a specific area of Italy (Liguria and, stretching slightly, Piedmont) made with clarity and not foolishly overpriced. It is not going to set the world on fire but sometimes, maybe more often than we admit, we'd rather eat to satisfy our stomachs than our curiosity.
And all this from a chef who's 24 and only been at the stoves for three years. Guglielmo Arnulfo is an ex-lawyer and rugby player (from Liguria, natch). Not sure that someone so young was striving for timelessness, but I think that's rather a good thing.
Acciuga, 343 Kensington High Street, London W8, Tel: 020 7603 3888. £90 for two, with wine
Three more traditional trattorias
Intimate and very friendly; excellent, large, thin pizzas; good specials; and good wines, too.
58-62 Lord Street, Southport, Merseyside, tel: 01704 544 255
Sale e Pepe
A roaring Italian-decibel level is part of the unchanging appeal of this crammed 1970s trattoria.
9-15 Pavilion Road, London SW1, tel: 020 7235 0098
This pleasant, eat-any-time deli/bistro serves artisanal meats, cheeses and breads, tapas-style, plus tasty pasta.
20 Homer Street, London W1, tel: 020 7723 0040
Reviews extracted from 'Harden’s London and UK Restaurant Guides 2013', www.hardens.com
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