Giardinetto, London W1
It used to be a rustic Italian restaurant, located in a dingy basement. Now Giardinetto has sleek, well-lit new premises and a flashy menu to match
What is that scent of alpine herbs mixing so strangely with the sea spray?" wrote Paolo Monelli of the Ligurian coastline in 1934. "It is the odour of pesto... it speaks Ligurian. The mere smell of it makes your ears ring with a dialect at once sharp and soft, full of sliding sounds, of whispered syllables, of dark vowels."
Now the odour of pesto has infiltrated Mayfair, by way of a small but intriguing restaurant called Giardinetto and its Genoa-born chef, Maurizio Vilona. Walk through the double glass doors and you can smell Liguria's dialect in the air, as four besuited men tuck into plates of deep green minestrone "mounted" with pesto. Order the local trofiette pasta (£10), coated in pesto and the smell comes first, before the dish arrives at the table; a mound of fresh, house-made pasta looking like squiggly worms, bathed in a mossy green coat of the basil, garlic, pine-nut, and Parmesan purée, and garnished with an arty streak or two of tomato purée. The flavour is sweet, nutty, verdant, grassy, earthy and sunny; the most delicious dialect I have eaten.
Giardinetto used to be in a rather unprepossessing basement in Charlotte Street. I wandered in one day on a reader's fervent recommendation (that email address below does work) but was put off by having to order a set-price menu. Now the menu is more flexible, and Vilona has moved to more expensive real estate, with a ground-floor setting of glass, steel and copper in Albermarle Street. The sleek lines, classy furniture, good lighting and air-conditioning upgrade it to the realm of chic Italian colonised so well by the likes of Zafferano, Locanda Locatelli and Sartoria.
Along with its makeover, the cellars have been upgraded and the vast, all-Italian wine list, put together by sommelier Christian Bucci, is awash with treasures.
In the move, some of Vilona's more rustic offerings seem to have been left behind. On the current menu, there is no trace of the trademark farinata (chick-pea-flour crêpe), nor of his hot-stone, cook-at-table dishes, nor more homely fare such as seppioline in zimino (a soupy combination of pea, baby squid and tomato). Instead, there is a distinct, modern bent, as you find in Italy today, evident in dishes such as tagliolini with chlorophyll and lobster sauce, fruit and vegetable soup with olive-oil sorbet, and fish soup "carta fata", cooked in Cellophane-like paper.
Some of these new twists work well, as with the luminous platter of thinly shaved monkfish carpaccio topped with a citrus salad (£6), a fresh-tasting, jump- in-the-mouth joy. Others don't. A lobster and pepper fagottino (£8), is an eggy crêpe envelope filled with an indistinct mush of lobster that tastes of nothing much at all.
An insider's selection of Italian wine nobility is ranged across the 19-page list, but there is enough to keep the peasants happy, and a sommelier smart enough to match-make. For £25, a Nicola Bergaglio Minaia Gavi 2004 from Piemonte is a fresh, crisp and tangy white, while a Serafini Phigaia 2001 (£31), a blend of Cab Franc and Merlot from the Veneto, is nicely plummy and peppery.
That blinding first course of trofiette al pesto is a hard act to follow. I find main courses well prepared and presented, but lacking the wow factor that either more authenticity or imagination could bring to them.
Roasted pigeon in sage sauce (£18) served as two halves of on-the-bone bird with diced beetroot and shredded celery is refreshingly simple, the pigeon, as always, tasting better if eaten with the fingers. Similarly, a roasted rabbit Polceverasca style (£15), with pine nuts, olive, sage and Ligurian white wine delivers remarkably tender rabbit meat, three towers of roasted potato giving it a somewhat English accent.
The fish soup is unusually presented in the glossy, crackly, transparent paper in which it has been cooked. Opened at the table, the paper is folded back under the rim of the plate, looking rather too much like those hygienically plasticised automatic loo-seat covers. Far better to transfer the contents to the plate, I think, although the itsy-bitsy stew of squid, prawns, clams and monkfish is underwhelming anyway.
But oh, what a delicious finish, with Vilona's refined version of the Genovese sacripante (£6.50). This is a textural treat, an indulgent, sensual combination of baby-soft cream and rum-soaked sponge that comes with its own talking point, a tiny thimble spun from sugar, full of extra rum for pouring over the top. It's the sort of thing you could imagine being fashioned by virgins' hands, baked by nuns and decried by priests. I expect a Papal warning on sacripante any minute.
The most enjoyable and impressive thing about Giardinetto is its sheer Italianness, from the bevy of snappily dressed, well-brought-up waiters who hover around the front door, to the mainly Italian business clientele who wolf down their pasta as if sitting in their mother's kitchens.
14 Giardinetto 39-40 Albermarle Street, London W1, tel: 020 7493 7091. Lunch served Sunday to Friday, dinner daily. Around £120 for two, including wine and service
Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets
Second helpings: More modern Italian restaurants
Santini Sheraton Hotel 8 Conference Square, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 221 7788 This bright, smart Italian located in the Sheraton's One Health Spa has sister restaurants in both London and Milan. The cooking is simple and fresh, with the occasion al modern twist. Try roast duck with cured bacon, chestnuts and honey; carpaccio of smoked swordfish; and ricotta mousse with fig sauce.
Firenze 9 Station Street, Kibworth Beauchamp, Leicestershire, tel: 0116 279 6260 A small village in south Leicestershire isn't the first place you would look for a modern Italian meal. Nevertheless, Pino and Sarah Poli's smart, welcoming restaurant turns up in most of the national restaurant guides. Among the more imaginative dishes are tagliatelle with avruga caviar, and sea bass with olive paste baked in focaccia dough.
Da Venditto 7 Park Place, Cardiff, tel: 029 2023 0781 A former winner of the AA Wales Restaurant of the Year award, Da Venditto is your big night out, Italian style. The food is well sourced and stylishly presented. As well as the classics, there's calamari and scallop with rosemary dressing, saffron and summer pea risotto, and praline-crusted duck with orange masala sauce.
Email Terry Durack about where you've eaten lately at firstname.lastname@example.org
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