Regular readers of this blog might already have worked out that I am something of an Italophile. I lived in Italy for a couple of years, first after leaving school, and then again after graduating from university. I ate pizza in Napoli, ricciarelli in Siena, pasta so fresh it melted in the mouth in Bologna, and gelato just about everywhere, no matter what the weather! Given that I ate so much incredible, authentic, traditional and (perhaps most importantly) local Italian food while there, I don’t often eat it in London. So I was surprised this week to find myself eating in three new (or new to me) establishments in W1, a district of central London that includes foodie hot-spot Soho. So I thought it might be worth a little round-up of where I think you can get pretty good Italian food in that postcode.
Many an evening while I lived in Italy was spent with friends drinking aperol spritz or prosecco at some little bar and eating the free food that came with it: anything from pizzette and crostini to mini sandwiches and selections of olives, cheese and cold meats (this was in my pre-vegetarian days). It’s often difficult to find a good aperol spritz in London, so when I heard about new aperitivo bar, Bar Termini, on Old Compton Street, I was keen to sample their version of this classic Italian aperitif, particularly because Tony Conigliaro (the cocktail maestro behind 69 Colebrook Row) is responsible for the drinks. My girlfriend and I made a plan to go on Tuesday, the same day that a 5* review appeared in Time Out, so I was slightly worried there wouldn’t be any space as it is tiny, with room for only 25 people. When we arrived around 6pm it was pretty full, and the only seats available were on stools at the bar. By the time we left an hour later, however, it had emptied out, and there was lots of space on the lovely-looking grey banquettes along the walls. Though I imagine it didn’t take long for it to fill up again after we left.
There were three members of staff: two behind the bar and one front-of-house, whom I didn’t envy at all after watching him constantly negotiating his way around the tiny space. I will admit to being slightly disappointed that only one of the three was Italian, but I suppose you can’t have everything… The menu consists of seven cocktails, including Bar Termini’s take on an aperol spritz, which comes with the additions of gin and rhubarb purée, various versions of a negroni and one rather interesting concoction (I think involving three textures of grasses, but I can’t quite recall), that you would expect from someone like Conigliaro. All are priced at £8, which is reasonable for the location and quality of the drinks. My girlfriend almost went for the really unusual offering, but in the end chose a negroni. The drinks were served with complimentary bottles of water, and we were also given a bowl of parmesan chunks to nibble on. We loved the vibe of Bar Termini: it’s tiny and unassuming (you could easily walk past it unless you manage to spot the blue T for ‘tabacchi’ sign hanging outside, which is a lovely touch) while also warm and welcoming, and was a lovely place to stop for a couple of drinks on a winter’s evening. I’m not sure what the feel will be like during the summer though; I imagine it might get quite hot when full. If evening drinks aren’t your thing, you can also go for good, proper coffee and a cornetto (the Italian croissant) in the mornings.
After two drinks at Bar Termini, we walked the length of Old Compton street to another Italian place I had walked past many times but for some reason never managed to visit: Tuscanic. From the window it looks inviting, with little wooden tables and stools, and a bar filled with delicious-looking sandwiches, cheeses and meats. The smell as you enter is incredible. All the products are, unsurprisingly, sourced from Tuscany, and all the staff are Italian. We had a couple of glasses of wine and shared some more cheese and artichokes from the ‘Cocci’ section of the menu: small terracotta bowls all priced at £2.50 and filled with either a cheese, charcuterie, artichokes, tomatoes or aubergine. They also bring you bread to go with. If you feel like more than a snack, there are sharing platters, sandwiches and salads. It’s a simple concept, but with quality, delicious ingredients, and at very affordable prices. I’m definitely looking forward to returning.
The very next day I happened to be going to the famous Franco Manca for pizza at lunchtime. The flagship restaurant is in Brixton Village, and every time I’ve walked past there have been huge queues crowding the tiny market. A year or so ago a branch opened five minutes from my office, and I’ve been meaning to go ever since (though the queues at lunchtime also snake out onto the street). I went with an Italian colleague of mine, Fede, who I think goes there quite regularly, and it was reassuring to hear over half the diners speaking Italian; clearly the pizza here is authentic and of good quality. It’s also reasonably priced, at around £7.50. Fede said he usually always orders whatever is on special that day, and having seen the great choices on the specials board as soon as we walked in, it was an easy decision. We therefore were able to order immediately, and though the restaurant was busy, we were surprised to have to wait at least 15-20 minutes for our pizzas to arrive. But, when they did, it was worth the wait.
The vegetarian special came with caramelised onions, mushrooms and fresh pesto, which is probably one of my favourite things. The sourdough base was soft and light, and there was just enough of each topping so that nothing was overpowered, allowing you to appreciate all of the ingredients. Definitely one of the best pizzas I’ve had in London.
Talking of pizza, ICCO in Fitzrovia, on the corner of Goodge and Charlotte Streets, is a popular choice – you can still get a margherita for the bargain price of £3.95 – but it’s more the ‘cheap and cheerful variety’ than anything you find yourself particularly admiring. If you’re looking for pizza that’s better and a touch more expensive, but still great value for money, then head to Pizza Pilgrims on Dean Street. Like Franco Manca, the Pilgrims also make their pizza bases from sourdough and stick with the concept that simple is best, allowing the flavours to shine.
Also in Fitzrovia, slightly north of ICCO on Warren Street, is Warrens (no website), an Italian family-run sandwich shop where you can get pretty much any kind of panino or ciabatta. They also have a wide selection of pastas and a great salad bar where you can choose from a huge array of options and compose your own salad. The service is friendly and efficient (and, by necessity, swift) and it’s always packed with nearby office-workers at lunchtime.
If you’re looking for a more leisurely lunch, then In Parma on Charlotte Place is a solid choice. I’ve been a couple of times for lunch with friends and am yet to be disappointed. The restaurant aims to source quality, authentic Italian ingredients from small producers. The menu is comprised of a selection of charcuterie and cheeses (of which you can have a mixed platter or single slices), various salads, delicious, fresh pasta made in-house and some polenta dishes (and good polenta is a wonderful thing). They have an excellent lunch deal of a meat or cheese and a main course for just £11.70. Despite the wide variety of charcuterie, there are ample vegetarian options, and the homemade bread is delicious and goes very well with the cheeses. For the full experience you could also order lambrusco, which comes served in small bowls.
All-day dining can be found in Princi on Wardour Street. Princi is a Milanese bakery institution, and this London outpost opened in 2008. It’s rather chaotic, with a counter/till ordering service Italians are used to but is the source of much confusion to Londoners and tourists, but that does lend it an authentic atmosphere. The stools in the window are great for an early evening drink with a friend as you watch the busy street outside. If you can’t cope with counter ordering, they do have a restaurant section on the left as you enter, where there is table service. Otherwise, it’s best to wander up and down the counters before ordering, and looking at the incredible array of cakes, pastries, pizza, foccaccia, salads and bread and trying not to order too much! It’s a great place for a quick Italian breakfast of coffee and a cornetto, or to pick up a slice of pizza at any time of day, and definitely budget-friendly.
A post about Italian food in W1 wouldn’t be complete without a mention of one of my favourite places to eat in town: Bocca di Lupo. It’s not cheap (though by London standards isn’t ridiculously expensive either), and as such is more of a restaurant for a special dinner, where you can linger over the food and not worry about ordering lots of it. I love how the menu tells you what party of Italy each dish is from (for Italian food is very regional) and that they offer nearly every dish in either small or large sizes. If you go, ask for a chef’s selection of fritti romani (whatever they particularly recommend that day) and, of course, the caponata, which is the best in London. Make sure you save some room though, for afterwards you must take a couple of steps across the cobbles of Archer Street to Gelupo, the incredible gelateria linked to the restaurant. They have some flavours which they make all year round (the ricotta and sour cherry is pretty great) and they do some seasonal ones (I notice at the moment there is a pumpkin and cinnamon on the menu, which I might have to try…). There’s also a good selection of sorbet.
Finally, delicatessen Lina Stores in Brewer Street is another must-visit in this part of London. They have a short menu available every day, which consists of homemade soup, pasta also made in-house (usually a couple of baked varieties such as lasagna as well as a choice of differently-filled fresh ravioli), various panini and a selection of desserts, and you can usually get everything for under a fiver. But, particularly at this time of year, in the run-up to Christmas, it’s a great place to pop in and look at the array of products available to purchase. The staff are welcoming and helpful, and (as I have done once before) can help you to put together a basket or hamper as a gift for someone. They have a huge choice of traditional Italian Christmas products, such as panettone and torrone, meats hanging from the ceiling, an amazing selection of cheese and fresh pasta, chocolates and pastries, as well as jars, bottles and tins of everything you could possibly want.
So there’s my Italophile’s guide to W1, but if you think I’ve missed something, please do leave a comment below…
Categories: Food & Drink