Why would you name your restaurant 500? The street number is 782, so that can't be it. Then I get it: the Italian owners must have been inspired by the glorious flowering of art, music and architecture synonymous with the Renaissance, known as the Cinquecento. Nope, that's not it either. It was the car. Mario Magli and Giorgio Pili just love the cute little bug-shaped Fiat 500, designed by Dante Giacosa in 1957 and produced in the millions until 1975, when it was withdrawn, not to be seen again until its relaunch last year as a retro-styled fashion statement on wheels.
After working since their mid-teens as chef and waiter/manager respectively, Magli and Pili were determined to open their own place, however modest. Hence the choice of Archway in north London and the simple, straightforward décor.
Like Jamie Oliver, Magli worked at Antonio Carluccio's Neal Street restaurant and later came under the influence of Passione's Gennaro Contaldo, before leaving to cook for the Big O himself at Fifteen. Now, just like Jamie, he has opened his own high-street Italian. The only difference is that one is a much-loved millionaire celebrity chef bent on world domination, the other isn't. He is, however, developing quite a fan base around the Holloway Road. Barely three months old, the place picked up a favourable Time Out review and the unclothed tables and neat wooden chairs are now booked solid by noisy locals and Italophiles.
It's a simple enough menu, with a hint of northern Italy and more than a dash of the south: potato gnocchi with Italian sausage, sorrel risotto, pancetta-wrapped monkfish and Sicilian-style braised rabbit. Magli makes the pasta, the bread and the focaccia himself.
He also knows when to leave well enough alone. Starters of prosciutto with peaches (£6.80) and bruschetta of buffalo mozzarella and agrodolce peppers (£6.20) look crowded on to too-small plates, but the quality:price ratio is in the diner's favour as much as the quantity. The fragrance of the sliced-to-order prosciutto, ripeness of the peaches and freshness of the roughly torn ball of soft, lactic, curdy, creamy cheese is proof that good shopping is 90 per cent of good cooking. The lovely balance of sweet and sourness in the soft, oily peppers supplies the extra 10 per cent with ease.
You may not find any Super Tuscans on the wine list, but there are some super buys, such as a perfectly decent Carlevari Soave for £2.15 (!) a glass, and a rich, soft, silky 2005 San Nicolao Barbera d'Asti at £24.50 – a bottle that could have been made with Magli's Sicilian rabbit (£11.50) in mind.
This rustic dish is Italian slow-cooking at its best; a generous stewy pile of rabbit joints bathed in lush, winey juices spiked with fruity olives, dried tomatoes and pistachios. The meat is full-flavoured and tender, served with a mountain of deeply tanned, lightly wrinkled roast-potato wedges that only Italians seem able to cook. Magli's cooking style seems as gentle as Pili's manner out front. Nothing is rushed, everything gets done in its own time, with no oleaginous bowing or posturing.
My only lament is that a pappardelle pasta with red snapper (£6.40) is dry, bitsy and boring, the tomato ragù not enough to coat the (very good) pasta. A creamy wedge of strawberry shortcake looks like something out of delicious magazine's August issue (page 80, actually) more than something called torta del giorno. It is only with difficulty that I stop myself from singing happy birthday to me.
That Magli and Pili named their restaurant not for the most momentous period of social, political and cultural upheaval in Italian history, but for a simple little runabout, now seems perfectly right. The tiny Cinquecento is functional, unpretentious and good value. It isn't trying to change the world, just be a vehicle in which people can enjoy themselves.
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
500, 782 Holloway Road, London N19, tel: 020 7272 3406. Lunch, Tues-Sat; dinner, Tues-Sun. Around £65 for two, including wine and service
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