River Cafe on tour: the foodie hot list

Their restaurant is famous for bringing the flavours of Tuscany and Liguria to London's culinary scene. But founders Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray look beyond Italy for their inspiration

Interview,Caroline Stacey
Wednesday 01 April 2009 08:45

'We both go to Tuscany for the olive oil. The whole area is exceptional for oil and it has the top Chianti Classico producers. Also, I enjoy shopping in the villages," says Rose Gray. "I like to go to Pisa and Florence. I'm always on the lookout for new things to bring back. Salamis can often be hand-made and if you really search, particularly in the markets, you can find some fabulous ones. You might taste a really sweet finocchiona salami with subtle fennel, made so big that one huge beautiful slice is the size of a plate. Wild boar products, dried white beans and chickpeas - this year's - I'm always looking for those. But my number one is olive oil. I'm always tasting it.

"For wine and oil I go to Felsina at Castelnuovo in the south-west corner of Chianti Classico. There's also Capezzana just outside Florence, in Carmignano, a DOC for wine. The olive oil is lovely. They start pressing around 27 October through until the end of November - you can go and see it being done. Ninety-nine per cent of olive oil producers make wine, too.

"Panzano near Florence is famous for its butcher, Dario Cecchini. He makes the most wonderful porchetta and incredible stewed beef shin, cooked with 100 cloves of garlic and bottles and bottles of Chianti for about 24 hours. He makes chilli mostarda, bright red and fiery, delicious on a bit of boiled tongue. It's a great shop, with all sorts of bits and pieces. You might not know what they are but you buy them anyway, to try."

Ruth Rogers adds: "Every summer, my husband, Richard, and I stay in a house between Montepulciano and Pienza for five weeks. We never go out to eat. Montepulciano has a very good butcher who will get me a whole pig for the wood oven. We grow basil and rucola in the garden and buy fresh borlotti beans, zucchini flowers, chard, tomatoes and grapes from a local man. We'll live on that all summer. This year we discovered someone who comes up from the coast to Montalcino every Friday morning to sell the sweetest langoustine, most fantastic sea bass I've ever eaten and wonderful vongole. Fish in Tuscany is not easy to find, so this is a real discovery."

Rose says: "This summer I succeeded in renting a house right on the sea for the first time, in a place where the fish is incredible, an amazing seaside town called Sabaudia between Rome and Naples. The sea is very deep around the Pontine islands off the coast there and the fish is of exceptional quality. They bring catches in two or three times a day to the fishmongers, so shopping is a joy. It's so hot during the day that I go in the evening. They unload the fish on the quay, put it in a little van and drive the few hundred yards to the shop where everyone is waiting to bag the best on offer.

"The town was designed by Mussolini in the 1930s and finished in the 1950s - it's where Romans go for their summer holidays. There's a market, millions of bars, and great food; Italian food for Italians. There's a restaurant called Saporetti literally on the beach, built into the sand, which offers about 25 different fish pastas plus grilled fish.

"The rest of the year I travel around Italy. I always visit Verona in April for the wine fair. I love the city because it's such a contrast to Milan and Rome. Every region of Italy is different from the others but the food shines whatever they do with it. In Verona there seems to be two kinds of restaurants, fish and meat. In the fish places, such as L'Oste Scuro, they'll bake a whole turbot in salt and serve it with borlotti beans and radicchio. In the meat restaurants, such as Al Pompiere, you'll get salamis, horse, fantastic ranges of cured prosciutto from all over that northern area, bresaola from Alto Adige and risotto. They're very keen on risotto in Verona."

Ruth adds: "I like to go to Milan to see what Peck is doing. It's an extraordinary store. Rose and I discovered it when we were in Milan together researching a book. Prosciutto, veal shins, ice cream, cakes and bread ... it's got everything and all of the most beautiful quality.

"In Italy you can drive along a dirty, dusty road to a farm where they make ricotta and when you get there it's all pristine stainless steel and women wearing nets. That's what Peck offers: well-sourced ingredients in a spotlessly clean environment. Brilliant.

"When we're in Milan, Rose and I eat out for lunch and dinner because we like to see what the restaurants are doing. But we hate fancy food. Masuelli San Marco is a restaurant that stands out. It's a kind of trattoria but it serves serious food; we ate a delicious pasta fagioli there. When I'm in Venice, for local Venetian food I go to Antiche Carampane, just behind the Rialto. It's a small trattoria that has not been ruined by tourism. I can learn so much from simplicity.

"The first thing I do when I go to a city is find out is where the market is. In France, my favourite market is in a little square in Beaulieu, near Cap Ferrat. I like it so much because it reminds me that we're closer to Italy. It's very Mediterranean, with traditional regional and seasonal vegetables. I usually visit in summer when there are amazing tomatoes, peaches, basil and cherries on sale. On one stall a man makes farinata, chickpea flour pancakes served wrapped up in paper, in a little wood oven. I took Rose there once. I told her: 'You have to taste this farinata. It's going to be the best thing you've ever eaten.' But the woman in front of us got the last one. However, she must have heard us talking so she gave it to us. It was so sweet.

"In Paris the street markets are slightly disappointing, though I have been to the organic one on Boulevard Raspaille. I love cheese and in Paris Fromagerie Barthélémy on Rue de Grenelle is beautiful: it's very small but has lots of chevre in season. I was there last weekend. I also love cakes, for which I go to Dalloyau, a very famous patisserie. I always buy the Gâteau Opéra - that's my favourite - with a thin layer of chocolate and coffee. And I love financiers, the almond biscuits. The original Poilâne bakery is in the Rue du Cherche-Midi - they do wonderful apple cakes with puff pastry.

"My favourite restaurant in Paris is Chez l'Ami Louis. Last week I had the ceps, fried mushrooms, and the partridge and Richard had wild duck with those potatoes with garlic on top, like dauphinoise but without the cream, just garlic, potatoes and butter - probably really bad for you, but I love it. At La Cagouille fish restaurant in Montparnasse the menu of really good fish from the Ile de Ré is chalked up on a blackboard."

Rose says: "My top choice for a foodie break would be San Sebastian. I've just come back from there and it is the most heavenly place on earth; a charming, small town, very easy to walk around, with beautiful architecture, broad tree-lined streets, a fantastic central market and a little port full of fishing boats. I brought back lots of anchovies and porcini mushrooms. They have a fabulous tradition of meat - such good-looking beef, jamon, chorizo, varieties of salami. There's a glut of everything. The market is brand-new and it's full of wonderful vegetables, beautifully displayed. There are all sorts of beans on sale. You can watch the ladies podding them - borlotti, black, cannelloni. They put them in little bags with chilli, a branch of sage, some onion... All you have to do is put it in a pot and cook it.

"We ate in Barkaiztegi, one of the cider houses, where they pour cider from a great height so it fizzes in the glass. They always serve steak in those places. You start with salt cod, fried, then you have a huge piece of steak - and that's it, not a vegetable in sight.

"In a traditional Basque restaurant, Casa Nicolasa, we ate black beans with chorizo - old-fashioned Spanish food done very beautifully. Lovely plates of jamon, fried green chillis, everything very simple and traditional. There's the most beautiful fish restaurant called Kaia, too, by the huge international fish auction house, just outside San Sebastian. You sit at huge tables laid with white tablecloths overlooking the bay, and old ladies, who know their fish, bring plates of anchovies, clams, various kinds of shrimps and langoustines, then a whole grilled turbot and then a whole grilled brill - but no vegetables, nothing. The grilling is all done outside in the street.

"We also tried Mugaritz, one of those Michelin star restaurants, like El Bulli. It was an extraordinary experience - we ate a 26-course meal there and everything was served in a broth."

Ruth adds: "For Christmas we usually visit South America. Last year we went to Peru and Mexico. We stay in a house in Mexico and cook ourselves. You think the food will be heavy, but then discover how light it is - lots of ceviche, breakfasts of chillis and eggs and black-bean sauce. It's very delicious. Cusco, a small city in the Andes, has the most fantastic market with a huge variety of potatoes. Oaxaca also has an amazing market right in town. We always go there to eat tacos.

"I travel to the States three or four times a year at least and when I'm in New York I like going to Dean and Deluca. It's very difficult to get estate-bottled extra virgin olive oil in the States - Rose and I like it with the date on - but they import it. And they sell very good bread and cheese. Also, the outdoor farmers' market in Union Square in New York has an energy you don't find in supermarkets - I'm impressed by the range of greens.

"When I'm in New York I love eating Japanese food, particularly soba noodles. I stay with my son downtown and we go to Honmora An. I also like the Spotted Pig, a gastropub, which is run by an ex-chef of The River Café, April Bloomfield."

Rose adds: "Australia is full of chefs who used to work for us. It's fun to see what they're doingnow. My favourite restaurant in Sydney, though, is Sean's Panorama on Bondi - he's not one of ours though his food is similar. Dishes feature fish with Mediterranean and Asian influences. It's a robust style of eating, but simple. Just what we like."

The 'River Café Pocket Books' - Pasta & Ravioli, Fish & Shellfish, Salads & Vegetables, and Puddings, Cakes & Ice Creams - are published on 2 November by Ebury Press, price £8.99

The best of the rest

Sean's Panorama, 270 Campbell Parade, Bondi Beach, New South Wales, Australia (00 61 2 9365 4924). A simple place, with dishes chalked up on a blackboard, serving fish with Mediterranean and Asian influences. Delicious.

Dean and Deluca, 560 Broadway, New York (00 1 212 226 6800; deanandeluca.com). No grocer (or gourmet store) is greater or grander than this New York favourite.

Honmura An, 170 Mercer Street, New York (00 1 212 334 5253). Hot or cold Japanese soba noodles are an art form.

The Spotted Pig, 314 West 11th Street, New York (00 1 212 620 0393; the spottedpig.com). A former River Café chef cooks terrific seasonal British and Italian grub in a gastropub.

Basque treats

Sideria Barkaiztegi

Paseo de Barkaiztegi 42, Martutene, San Sebastian (00 34 943 451 304). Eat steak and salt cod at the cider house.

Casa Nicolasa

Aldamar 4-1°, Donostia, San Sebastian (00 34 943 421762; ensusalsa.com). Lovely, traditional Basque food.

Asador Kaia

General Arnau, 10 Getaria, San Sebastian (00 34 943 14 0500; kaia-kaipe.com). Fish grilled in the street overlooking the bay near the international auction house.


Aldura Aldea 20, Errenteria (00 34 943 52 2455; mugaritz.com). Michelin-starred chef Andoni Luis Aduriz's fascinating food lab of a restaurant.

A taste of Paris

Fromagerie Barthélémy

51 rue de Grenelle, Paris (00 33 1 42 22 82 24). The ultimate cheese shop.


101 rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré, Paris (00 33 1 42 99 90 00; dalloyau.fr). The most irresistible patisserie.


8 rue du Cherche-Midi, Paris (00 33 1 45 48 42 59; poilane.fr). The original branch of the world-famous artisan bakery.

Chez l'Ami Louis

32 rue du Vertbois, Paris (00 33 1 48 87 77 48). Famous for foie gras and game.

La Cagouille

10-12 Place Constantine-Brancusi, Paris (00 33 1 43 22 09 01; la-cagouille.fr). The finest fish from the Atlantic.

Our favourite flavours of Italy

Fattoria di Felsina

Via del Chianti 101, Castelnuovo Berardegna, Siena, Tuscany (00 39 057 7355117; felsina.it). Chianti Classico estate where great extra virgin olive oil is also produced.

Villa di Capezzana

Via Capezzana, Carmignano, Tuscany (00 39 055 870 6005; capezzana.it). Sophisticated olive-oil production and wine growing. Wine tours, oil mill tours and cookery classes.

L'Antica Macelleria Cecchini Panzano, Florence, Tuscany (00 39 055 852 020; panzano.com). A cultured butcher with a cult following for his porchetta.


Via Torre Paola, 04016 Sabaudia, Lazio (00 39 077 3515 987; saporetti.com). Eat antipasti, pasta with seafood and some of the best fish.


Via Spadari, Milan (00 39 027 2002371; peck.it). Food hall showcasing the finest Italian produce.

Trattotia Masuelli San Marco

Viale Umbria 80, Milan (00 39 025 518 4138). A trattoria that is serious about serving simple food.

Trattoria Antiche Carampane

San Paolo 1911, Venice (00 39 041 524 0165; antiche carampane.com). The place to try some real Venetian cooking.

Al Pompiere

Vicolo Regiana d'Ungeria 5, Verona (00 39 045 803 0537). Sells an incredible selection of salami and prosciutto.

L'Oste Scuro

Vicolo San Silvestro 10, Verona (00 39 045 592 650). Serves only fish.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments