It isn't so long ago that Italian food meant pizza and pasta with dollops of tomato sauce. But this style of cooking derived from Naples and the poorer south. What Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers have done is to introduce the sophisticated home cooking of other regions, principally Tuscany which they both know well.
Elizabeth David had been first to describe the diversity of the cooking of the regions (in her book, Italian Food, 1954). Then, in California in 1971, Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse which ignored shortcuts, capitalising instead on the best seasonal produce and Italian garden herbs such as spicy rocket (rucola).
Here, in London, Alastair Little was among the first to exploit excellent Italian staple ingredients such as premium Parma ham and parmesan cheese, salsicce (cured sausages) and cannellini beans. A drizzle of estate-bottled extra virgin olive oil turned chick peas into a chic dish. The stage was set for what was tantamount to a revolution.
The emergence of the River Cafe, the most chic of all, was fired by a passion for the cucina rustica of Tuscany. Its success seeded a new generation of Italian restaurants featuring authentic dishes from across Italy.
So, what is the River Cafe? Well, it is a converted Duckham's Oil warehouse in Hammersmith, but the hand that fashioned it is that of Ruth Rogers' husband, Lord (Richard) Rogers, the architect who created the Pompidou Centre in Paris and Lloyd's building in London.
Ruth Rogers is American, daughter of a doctor in upstate New York. Until she met her husband, whose mother, Dada, is from Florence, she knew nothing of authentic Italian food.
Ruth Rogers' partner, Rose Gray, grew to love Italian home cooking while living in Tuscany, bringing up her family while her husband, David Macilwaine, painted. She met Ruth Rogers through Lord Rogers, having been a friend of his first wife, Sue, at art college in Guildford.
Some point out the irony of London's literary glitterati rushing to eat rural cooking at pounds 50 to pounds 80 a head. Customers include playwrights John Mortimer and Harold Pinter, novelists Julian Barnes and Will Self, painter Lucien Freud, media folk Anna Ford and Jeremy Paxman, and superstars David Bowie and Kenneth Branagh. Not to mention the leaders of New Labour. Lord Rogers has been hosting several fund-raising parties for Tony Blair.
This is not peasant food, but home cooking based on fresh vegetables, dried beans, fresh garden herbs, regular staples such as pasta and pizza, rice and polenta. The extra virgin olive which is generously poured into the bread soups costs about pounds 20 a litre. And the bread is sliced from deeply-flavoured, densely-textured sourdough loaves.
If the River Cafe was built on rural Tuscan foundations, in recent years it has been spreading its wings. The new opus, River Cafe Cook Book Two (from which we will be publishing recipes for the next four weeks) contains dishes from across Italy. From Le Marche, a spaghetti dish in which mussels are chopped finely to coat the pasta. From Capri, a salad of young artichokes with boiled lemons. "It sounds strange," says Rose Gray, "but when you boil lemons, you boil away their bitterness."
You need to scrub the lemons well to rid them of insecticide, she points out. This is another article of faith: they always seek out organic produce. Their suspicion of the ways of agribusiness is unblinking. This extends to a boycott of beef.
They are not vegetarians, but love vegetables. It has been essential for them to get tomatoes, aubergines and green and red peppers with real flavour. To maximise flavour, initially they char-grilled them, a technique which was to be copied by every new restaurant in London.
Three years ago they redesigned the River Cafe to make it a larger, more exciting space, and established an Italian wood burning oven as the focus.
Rose Gray explains that the intensity of the heat (over 230C) bounces back off the low oven ceiling to cook vegetables from the inside out, the starches turning to sugar, so that they start to caramelise and sweeten. In contrast, the oven can also give very low temperatures. In its dying heat you can cook cuts of meat like porchetta (shoulder of pork) for 12 hours, as they do in parts of Tuscany, to give tender meat which melts in your mouth.
Happily, you don't have to install a wood-fired oven to replicate their dishes. Experimenting at home, they have produced recipies everyone can follow. So, roll up and read all about it in the Sunday Review next week.Reuse content