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The Italian Job

I recently had an opportunity to drive several fast cars and thought about the connection between cars and national character. The big V8 Ford Mustang was an American bruiser. Confident and wide shouldered it announces it presence with a low basso growl. Rev the engine and dogs run away. Small children start crying. The Porsche 911 is all wrong. The engine is in the wrong place, the weight balance makes it act like a pedulum, but the Germans bullied it into behaving. It’s clinical and efficient – and occasionally mean. Not for nothing was the car called “the widow maker”. There is something of the stiff British upper lip about the Aston Martin Vantage. It’s classy, fast and imperturbable. Yet, it’s a bit cold. The ideal car for a cold blooded killer. Say, James Bond. If the American car is masculine and confident, the Italian is edgy and wild. The Ferrari 360 starts up with a malevolent yowl, like someone stepped on a cat’s tail. It’s never settled or docile – it commands and demands attention . This a beautiful, high maintenance automobile. We have all known women like that – easy to fall in love with. Difficult to live with. Always beguiling. Like most things Italian.

I had Italy on my mind as I visited Negozio Classica in Primrose Hill, their second restaurant in London. Negozio Classica started out in Notting Hill as a wholesaler’s shopwindow for all things Italian. The original tiny store in Notting Hill stocks exquisite wines, dried meats and cheeses. When it first opened it also carried watches, knives and a bunch of expensive Italian bric a brac. We went there because the espresso was fabulous and because the woman who ran it was an exotic, olive skinned beauty. She was also bonkers. One of her marketing ideas was to have the TV screens in the store playing The Godfather 1, 2 & 3 in a continuous loop. I worried about those big knives. Negozio Classica has come a long way. The concept has been refined to selling Italian wines and serving a limited Italian menu. Avignonesi, the Tuscan wine maker is now a part owner. The tiny store in Notting Hill is always packed. The Primrose Hill venue is bigger with a proper restaurant space and a private dining area.

Tonno del Chianti at Negozio Classica

I took the Valley Girl and the Boston Brahmin with me on a balmy spring day. The cocktails are limited to an Aperol Spritz which continues to be my favourite summer cocktail (Aperol is an orange liquor, a bit like Campari but with half the alcohol. The cocktail adds Prosecco and a dash of soda water for extra fizz). I wait in vain for the English summer.

The wines at Negozio Classica are unique and desirable. The wine list included some exceptional Tuscan and Sardinian wines that I haven’t seen anywhere else in London. All of the wines in the store can be ordered in the restaurant with a very reasonable £8.50 (~ $12) corkage on the retail price .

The establishment has a wine store facing the street, a restaurant in the back and a private dining room upstairs. The decor is simple; earth tones, small oak tables and sixties-chic lighting. The menu is simple but delicious. We had chunks of parmesan and puglia olives to start – take some home for your next cocktail party. The hard cheese is rarely served by itself in non Italian homes – it deserves to be. The Tonno del Chianti is the standout dish here – literally Tuna of Chianti it is actually a pork dish simmered until tender, then shredded and stored in olive oil and spices for several days. At Negozio Classica it is pressed into a disc and served chilled on a bed of spinach. It even tastes a bit like tuna. The story goes that local monks would drive pigs into a lake and then baptise them as fish, so they could be eaten during lent, when eating fish is permitted but meat is prohibited!

Gilbert and George, LONDON PICTURES at the White Cube Gallery

On an Italian mission I then visited Zucca in Bermondsey, a restaurant worth crossing the river for. Bermondsey is near London bridge and attracts smart young things without children, who live in apartment spaces without walls. Zucca takes its inspiration from the River Cafe and is very, very good. It is also a shockingly good deal – mains are under £16 (~$25) and starters are all under £6 (~$10). I got there a bit early for lunch and wandered into the newly opened branch of the White Cube art gallery. Fittingly they are showcasing an Italian/British artist duo in Gilbert & George. Their photo based art work is controversial and in your face. Their current exhibit, London Pictures doesn’t disappoint, portraying an almost Dickensian appreciation of modern London life.

I calmed down with a Negroni. Zucca has an architecturally cliched concrete and white wall thing going. It’s a small space with large windows and the simple decor works. I have eaten here several times and the dishes have been faultless. The nation’s critics have universally acclaimed it. The spicy octopus stew with pancetta and polenta is a nice Italian take on surf and turf and is a favourite. The standout dish for me though is the starter of Zucca Fritti. The pumpkin from which the restaurant takes its name is chipped, lightly battered and fried. The chip like rendering of a pumpkin is unexpected. The crispness of the batter contrasts nicely with the soft, slightly sweet flesh of the pumpkin. I think its probably better for you than French Fries.

These are two restaurants on either side of the river Thames. They are both Italian, but they offer different interpretations of Italian cuisine. Negozio Classica offers straightforward Italian and Tuscan specialities. Zucca is more creative in its offerings, while remaining true to an Italian heritage. Visit both. Drive a Ferrari. Live a little. Vivi un pò!

Further Reading

Blogger reviews of Zucca from An American in London and Swedish Meatball Eats London. The UrbanSpoon link to Negozio Classica below is to the original Notting Hill venue. The new branch in Primrose Hill is too new to have been reviewed yet. You read it here first!

Negozio Classica on Urbanspoon

Zucca on Urbanspoon

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