Whether I am the right person to review Tinello, a new restaurant just on the doorstep of some of London's priciest residential property, may not be for me to say. The least I can do is forewarn the reader that I rank low on the counts of both wealth and trendiness. On top of which, I am not that well-disposed to the much-celebrated – indeed world-famous – Locanda Locatelli.
Tinello, I should explain, is affiliated to Locatelli, a restaurant I have visited only once, and that after a huge amount of eager anticipation. But I'm afraid the curmudgeon in me found it too loud, too moneyed, too expensive, too big and too full of people being seen eating at the world-famous Locanda Locatelli. To my mind, the best Italian food scores nil for ponceyness and 10 for flavour, with value for money a given.
Tinello, which opened a month ago on the site in Pimlico where L'Incontro used to be, is the product of Federico Sali, a Florentine former employee of Locatelli, and his sommelier brother Max.
Mercifully, whatever it was the brothers learnt from Locatelli, they retained the best bits. The décor is as far from its parent's place as you could imagine: low-key, dark and workmanlike. The walls are bare red brick, and the lights plain bulbs hanging from 1920s-style copper-shaded lamps. The effect is modishly austere – presumably to evoke a tinello, or kitchen eatery – yet remains slightly curious, strangely un-Chelsea. The message is that this is a place not for posing, but for serious eating.
Our starters are an announcement that not only does this guy know what he is doing, he knows he knows what he is doing. My friend has antipasti: finocchiona (fennel salami) with a bit of pecorino di Pienza cheese; figs (perfectly ripe) with Parma ham; the ubiquitous chicken-liver crostini; and onions pickled in balsamic vinegar. Each provokes gasps of "You must try this," and I duly gasp in agreement.
I have three of what the menu calls "small eats", each for £2.50 or less and designed to share. The slender strands of zucchini fritti, which might sound like the gimmick of some up-himself pretender, are a marvel. The burrata (curd cheese), with soggy, tomatoey bread, leaves you guiltily wanting more and the panzanella bread salad, always a subjective matter, is perfect. Again, here is a confident chef wanting to please, and he does.
Max Sali, meanwhile, is also doing his share of pleasing. I have a glass of dry Arpeggio Bianco, from Sicily, for which I pay an embarrassing £2.50. (I know it's cheap in the shops as well, but how many restaurants would play fair like that?)
My "primo" is perhaps the most typical of the meal. The gnudi in salsa al pomodoro (spinach and ricotta with tomato sauce), made this morning, tastes as fresh as anything I have ever tasted. This is a classic, mouthwatering case of letting the ingredients speak for themselves. My urbane friend, going through the motions of abstemiousness, can't resist a taste. He's no Jilly Cooper on the enthusiasm front, but even he calls it "sublime".
His next course, brill and borlotti beans, works well, he says, "the sweetness of the fish contrasting with the earthiness of the beans". I duly jot down this peerless piece of review-speak, but then he disgraces himself, announcing: "The brill is brill." I try to ignore it, but he keeps repeating himself, like a child hearing a fart joke for the first time. The wonder of what he is eating has clearly infected his judgment.
I plough on, hugely enjoying my beef fillet with girolle mushrooms with lemon spinach (accompanied perfectly by a Tempranillo recommended by our heroic sommelier, clearly no Italo-chauvinist), barely able to speak at the wonder of it all.
Although everything we have is light as can be, we settle on just sharing a pudding, a crumbly almond tart with yoghurt ice-cream. Decorum over who has most is maintained, although it's a close thing. The service, by the way, is perfect: friendly but low-key and well-informed.
On the way home, the following words come up again and again: terrific, quiet, understated, unshowy. Tinello, you can't help feeling, is here to stay. It was far from full, but even though Pimlico is not real work-lunch territory, I suspect it will be. As for the evenings, book now.
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
Tinello 87 Pimlico Road, London SW1, tel: 020 7730 3663 Lunch and dinner, Monday-Saturday. £90 for lunch for two, including two glasses of wine
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Reviews extracted from ‘Harden’s London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010’. www.hardens.com