You may not have heard of half the dishes on the menu, but Bocca di Lupo might just be Britain's best Italian
Bocca di Lupo, 12 Archer Street, London W1, tel: 020 7734 2223
When in doubt, order something you haven't had before. It is a strategy that has served me well all over the world, with the possible exception of those Vietnamese unhatched chickens, and the deep-fried scorpions in Beijing. But who wants a life measured solely by steak and chips when you can try something new and actually learn something?
Mind you, it's not always easy. Brit/Italian restaurant menus seem particularly set in stone with their unavoidable calamari, carpaccio, Caprese and costoletta. That's why my new favourite menu is the one at Soho's Bocca di Lupo (literally "mouth of the wolf"), put together by the Italian-loving Brit Jacob Kenedy, who has cooked with Sam and Sam Clark at Moro and Nancy Oakes at Boulevard in San Francisco. It's full of things such as fried eel with polenta, lamb prosciutto, and bone-marrow risotto, with every dish credited to a particular Italian region, so you can place yourself as you pace yourself. Most dishes are available in small or regular sizes, a smart move that suits small, regular, extra-large and I'm-not-very-hungry eaters.
There is stuff here I already know and love – cotechino sausage, puntarelle wild greens – and stuff I don't know yet but will almost certainly love. Crescentina? What's that? It is puffy, warm, croissant-shaped, deep-fried pizza dough (Bologna, £5.50/£11.50) that is as light as air, draped with paper-thin, fennel-scented salami that clings to it like silk, and served with a squish of squacquerone cheese. Squacquerone? What's that? It's creamy, lactic, stracchino-like, and combined with the warm pizza dough and salami, it is one gigantic mouthfest.
Even when you know what is coming, you don't. "Shaved radish, celeriac, and pecorino with pomegranates and truffle oil (Umbria, £4)" doesn't prepare you for a thinly sliced stack of truffle-scented crunch, while a house-made "rustic" pork and foie gras sausage with farro (Trentino, £6.50) is about as refined as a sausage can get, with its sweet, light herbiness and a core of melting foie gras. The last time I ate such gentle trofie pasta with green beans, potato and pesto (£6), such spiky puntarelle with anchovy (£5.50) and such perfectly cooked cime di rapa greens (£4), I was in Liguria, Rome and Puglia. And the best thing I can say about a simple glass of Sicilian burnt-almond granita and bitter-chocolate sorbet (£7) is that it tastes every bit as good as it sounds.
If the food feels Italian, so does the restaurant, even with a team of well-spoken Brits (including the talented Nick Bell, last seen at Apsleys at The Lanesborough) beavering away in the open kitchen behind a stool-lined Carrera-marble-topped bar. Tucked down the back is the snug dining-room proper, with its Venetian chandelier, terrazzo flooring, bare tables and lovely Haidee Becker still-life canvases that echo ancient mosaics. It has that same comfortable, confident buzz you find in any good dining-room in Bologna or Modena. My new favourite Italian waiter, Luca, gently talks me into a lush, ripe-but-light Cannonau from Sardinia, the 2006 Il Sardo Rosso (£28.25), from the equally regional, interesting and flexible list.
At a later lunch up at the bar, I am bowled over by a hearty, soupy, sweetly tomatoey, trippa alla Romana (tripe with pork cheek and pecorino, £8.50) that prompts my neighbour to comment: "I would never eat tripe, but I could eat that." There is a too-thin gruel of white polenta, and a blah miniature bollito of beef with salsa verde, but most of the eating is as good as you will find outside Italy, with more flexible dining options than you will find inside Italy. As for what I said about always trying something new, forget it. I'm going back for more crescentina, squacquerone and Cannonau.
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
Bocca di Lupo, 12 Archer Street, London W1, tel: 020 7734 2223. Lunch and dinner, Mon-Sat. Around £85 for two, including wine and service
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