Mele e Pere, 46 Brewer Street, London W1
Take a trip down the apples and pears to Soho's sensational Italian newcomer
So here we are, standing in a queue outside Pitt Cue Co, the red-hot new barbecue specialists in Soho, on the coldest night of the year. (I'm surely not the first to rechristen it Pitt Queue Co.) A woman walks past and pauses. "What the hell are you doing, waiting out here in the cold?" she gasps. "It's not like there isn't anywhere else to eat around here..." And that's how we end up in Mele e Pere.
Perhaps the cold has iced up my brain, as it takes me a while to realise the brightly lit corner building with a window full of glass apples and pears, and just the tip of a staircase showing, is the restaurant, a spanking-new Italian (mele e pere, duh).
Mr M and I trot down the tiled steps to see a long, copper-topped bar and a low-ceilinged room, with rather attractive mismatched wooden tables and chairs.
The walls have Anglepoise lamps of differing vintages attached to illuminate the tables. A neat trick, but the effect is somewhat spoilt on the back wall by four ghastly abstract paintings which frankly would be better off in the shadows, if not in a skip outside. (Apologies to owner Peter Hughes and co-owner/chef Andrea Mantovani, both late of the ace Wild Honey, who clearly have otherwise excellent taste, but really...)
We are brought a pitcher of water and a short, purely Italian menu. It's refreshing to find a simple, confident menu of a single cuisine. Starters include tripe with Parmesan, salumi with rabbit bruschetta, Venetian salt cod. Then pastas: linguine with Sicilian gambero, tagiatelle with beef-cheek ragu, an artichoke risotto; main courses include calves' liver alla Veneziana, bistecca alla Fiorentina, and grilled plaice. Sides are chard, grilled peppers, roasted fennel and chicory.
There's much to tempt, and having a biddable companion such as Mr M makes it easy to mix and match. In this case, one starter, two pasta dishes and one main course with two side dishes (one is included in the mains price).
A beetroot, gorgonzola, walnut and pear salad (£7.50) is pleasant enough; not sensational. But oh, the pastas.
Spaghetti alla carbonara (£7.50) is a dish many think they can make, but to make it well is rare indeed. This one is sublime – rich with egg and cheese, soft strands of pasta and generous chunks of salty bacon. Nothing fancy, just a perfect, comforting bowl of goodness. I'd have licked it clean; Mr M restrains himself.
My orecchiette with Romanesco broccoli, friggitelli (mild peppers) and clams (£7.95) is more unusual, but just as delicious. The vegetable has a bitter tang that offsets the sweet little clams beautifully, and breadcrumbs give texture to the little ears of pasta.
Our slow-roasted shoulder of lamb (£16.95) is silky soft and full of flavour, a nubbin of gristle on one slice the only distraction. A side of borlotti beans is cooked well but with no heat from the chilli. The roasted fennel is excellent – oil-slicked chunks with charred stripes.
We've been so engrossed in our food that we barely notice the other tables, but a large family group (at whose head is a well-known footballer) and two women sharing wine and some serious gossip are among the convivial fellow diners. It's only half-full, but it is an icy Tuesday on week two, so I expect things to get busier.
Maître'd Hugo has been keeping a solicitous eye on us, enquiring every now and then as to our enjoyment of the meal. When he arrives once more with the pudding menu it feels like too much attention. He wants to know if I'm ordering ice-cream (from a selection which includes Mr M's favourite, zabaglione, with home-made lingue di gatto biscuits, £6.50). I was already, in fact, going to order ice-cream – a scoop each of Valrhona chocolate and hazelnut – so don't need the loving description of the very, very special Bravo Trittico machine they use to make it. In fact, Hugo is in danger of overselling the ices. He insists on me trying pistachio at his expense (and I'm sure he hasn't rumbled me as a critic). This had better be good.
Three pretty little glasses arrive. I dip into each in turn. It's a long way beyond good. It's amazing, memorable, fabulous. The texture is creamy with no hint of watery iciness; the flavours remarkable.
So I end up with something frozen anyway, on this freezing night. Next time I'm in Soho I will make a point of coming back to Mele e Pere just for a bowl of carbonara and a scoop of ice-cream. It'll be £10 exceptionally well spent.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Mele e Pere 46 Brewer Street, London W1, tel: 020 7096 2096 Lunch and dinner, Mon-Sat. £80 for two with wine
1 Great Peter Street, London SW1, tel: 020 7222 7080
Hidden away near Parliament, this airy, discreet and comfortable basement gem is well worth seeking out for its eclectic cucina all'Italiana.
The Old Coach House, 36 Peasholme Green, York, tel: 01904 622 584
A gorgeous deli, with restaurant attached whose brilliant (if limited) menu includes delicious antipasti and pasta (plus scrumptious wines imported direct from Italy)
Caldesi in Campagna
Old Mill Lane, Bray, Berks, tel: 01628 788500
A true Italian family welcome and excellent cuisine; Giancarlo Caldesi's two-year-old Tuscan is a destination with which no one finds any real fault
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2012' www.hardens.com
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