Friday, 20 May 2011

Take Three Italians

Some people might argue that Italian cuisine isn’t all about pasta and pizza but I would cry havoc and vehemently disagree. From a young age we’ve all been indoctrinated with spaghetti or your first slice of pizza as being resolutely Italian. Let’s be honest, mere mortals like myself (and not including the sons and daughters of Aeneas) usually fail in identifying or remembering the names of the carne or the pesce secondi we’ve eaten. And if I’m honest I would stress that during the past two and a half decades Londoners have become more savvy and no longer suffer fools gladly when contemplating about dining-out Italian. We are now spoilt by the endless wonderful choices of raw ingredients available in shops that enable us to tag ourselves as The Mama in ‘mama knows best’ or why bother with the Prezzos or Unos when you know your own spag bol blows the socks off…QED. I could also mention that my own versions of tagliatelle alla carbonara and linguine all' astice are good enough reasons to make me additionally wary of the likes of Locanda Locatelli charging the earth for the same kind of dish. If an osteria, ristorante or trattoria fails to serve a decent plate of pasta then it’s not Italian and you’ve been had. Italian food is primarily all about the pasta and that’s that.

Bella Vita

Bella Vita is the kind of restaurant the original Spaghetti House was more than half a century ago, serving up the kind of Italian food that most of us oldies have grown accustomed to, kitsch British Italian some would say, but ultimately treatworthy nonetheless. There are also times when one hankers after their childhood scran (thank you Tone) and can’t be bothered with the home-cooking domestics; like Wimpy’s Bender meals, prawn cocktails, chicken Kievs or maybe a heart-warming pollo Milanese. Some succumb wilfully to the Garfunkel’s menus so fondly embraced by the hoi polloi. It was in fact the Pollo alla Milanese on Bella Vita’s window menu that made me walk in.

Broadway Market, together with Hoxton, made Hackney voguish. It’s home to the shops, eateries and the celebrated Saturday market where a V sign may be validly gestured at The West End…a place to be seen, heard and acknowledged by the hedonistic, ageless, cultured and I’ve been led to believe, ‘schooled’ readers of The Grauniad. As a result Bella Vita is always busy and best of luck if you need a table during the weekend.

A thin slice of a Cinquecento on the wall suggests a degree of authenticity. That means there has to at least one Antonio or Gennaro hovering around in the kitchen or we live in hope.

Garlic bread
A man-sized 10” pizza in its own right and enough garlic to provide the ‘hot’ sensation in the mouth. Not recommended for first dates, as it’s an immense ‘tonsil hockey’ (or snog, thank you Urban Dictionary) deterrent. Otherwise no complaints and thus excellent value at £3.50!

Now head straight to the specials and go for stuff like-

Asparagi caprino
Baked and roasted asparagus, goaty cheese and salad. A generous and rather good starter that means sod the pud thereafter.

Zuppetta of mussels and clams in garlic and light tomato sauce.
Don’t be misled by the name, it ain’t a soup but essentially a moreish and yet again, generous serving of well-cooked fresh shellfish. Do be warned as they love their chillies at Bella Vita and sweat buckets prevail when eating this dish!

Pollo alla Milanese- breaded chicken escalope with spaghetti pomodoro.
This dish should taste distinctly average and not more or less. And it did and I was well chuffed. Am I the first blogger to cheer on suppliers like 3663?

Spaghetti bottarga- basically spaghetti alle vongole with grey mullet roe.
Spag vongo is easy to cook and it has to be bianco (without the bleeding tomatoes!). Apart from the usual suspects of garlic, olive oil, parsley, chilli, vino, salt and pepper, you’ll need good dried spaghetti and the freshest Carpet shell clams. Bella Vita serves up the best spaghetti alle vongole in London and to top it up with some grated bottarga is simply pure genius. 15 beautifully cooked clams counted on the plate, unprecedented I would say! Delicious beyond words!

The service can be chaotic but thankfully friendly. And the best way to sum up the experience here is the following-

“If I had my life to live over,
I would start barefoot earlier in the spring
and stay that way later in the fall.
I would go to more dances.
I would ride more merry-go-rounds.
I would pick more daisies.”*
And go the Bella Vita for some pasta and clams.

*From a poem by Nadine Stair

Bella Vita
53 - 55 Broadway Market,
London E8 4PH

Scores on the doors



Giles Coren is my favourite restaurant critic but boy he got this place so wrong. Perhaps he was dining at his best mate’s favourite haunt or just maybe the baby changing room facilities were an utter godsend for Kitty’s dad.

Homa is huge and indeed quite alluring both outside and inside. It’s a bit like the Canteen chain but with added intimacy and exclusivity. With the kind of surroundings and interiors that Homa possesses, it becomes a magnet for the residents of Hackney’s own Hampstead (or Stoke Newington Church Street) but the food here is simply faux Italian!

Homa is partially Italian owned or at least conceptually. It’s run and staffed entirely by a young and friendly Turkish crew. The rather good service unfortunately blows the food away!

Stale bread and weedy Olive Oyl.

Arancini- fried rice balls with Mozzarella
Too hard to chew and clapped out inside to make me frown with disappointment. The absence of a piquant arrabiata dipping sauce made things worse.

Vitel Tonnè with capers and rocket
I tested and asked the waitress what the above was and she said confidently in a don’t-you-know sort of way- 'cooked meat!' Yes of course and I’m only a little foetus.

The vitello tonnato (cold poached veal with tuna sauce) at Homa was tasteless and served too cold as opposed to room temperature. The meat tasted like bland slices of pork loin from a chiller at Asda’s and the tonnato was most possibly vegan, my taste buds couldn’t detect any tuna, anchovies or egg yolk! Sad and despairing. For the best vitello tonnato in town head here instead, and the chef’s not even Italian!

Pizza Vegetariana: with goat cheese, mozzarella, tomato, aubergine, courgette and peppers.
The current austerity measures and rising consumer prices of ingredients (‘cept the flour) have so evidently affected the above dish, and the thickness of the crust was blatantly Americanised. If this is your kind of pizza then you’re better off calling 08712 12 12 12 now! A howling disappointment.

Tagliatelle with crab and cherry tomatoes
The said Coren went gaga over this dish. He had taglierini but mine was tagliatelle. I’m a purist and would insist on linguine or a Plan B choice of humble spaghetti any day. I cannot fuss about the generous amount of crabmeat tossed in, but unfortunately it was sadly characteristic of the vacuum-packed pasteurised variety and not a patch on the fresh ones. This dish was at best average and let’s just say I could do a lot more with a tin of Sainsbury White Crab Meat and De Cecco pasta. I hereby digress.

Vanilla panna cotta with mix berries
We waited forever for this pud and when it did turn up Signore Suave the manager said it came all the way from Italy…hence the delay! Gawd, the texture! Enough gelatine reminiscent of the day the earth pudding stood still. Oh shit, I hope my vegetarian-dining companion is not reading this!

Homa was terribly, terribly average and lacklustre, and I hate to rub salt but the word wonderclout comes to mind. If you want to me meet in N16 for some decent grub then it’s has to be either here
or here. Not recommended.

71-73 Stoke Newington Church Street
N16 0AS
Scores on the doors


500’s an eye-opener, and make no mistake. Heard about this place via the nooks and crannies from the networking exploits of london-eating’s Kate. Like Pinner, Ac-Ton (sorry Su-Lin), and Sutton, Archway is empirically devoid of any London buzz. Aah but I do have a soft spot for the capital of N19; for it was where I stayed when I was making models of pergolas whilst at The Bartlett and also home to the glorious Archway Kebab House. As of now I’ve decided that if I have it my way then Archway is no longer a nonentity on the Underground map, so best disembark here instead of Camden Town or Highgate for it’s where 500 resides.

500 is named after the iconic Italian broom cupboard on wheels and besides, cinquecento sounds a lot more Roman Holiday than settecentoottantadue! It’s thankfully and unabashedly owned, cooked and run by Italians. Let’s get the ugly side of things out first and there was only one; the dining room and its ambience was impeccably sterile, it was in fact like another posh-upped greasy spoon. That said, the service was undeniably da amico and helpful (after all I was wielding a large camera and that helped).

Delightful home-baked breads

Bread anoraks would go crazy over the pane carasau or piadina Romagnola, Focaccia and Pane di Altamura.

Tagliere 500
or the 500 cutting board

A most perfect antipasto consisting of Mortadella, salami, olives, ham, Pecorino, and so on. However there was one lone morsel of raviolo fritto ripieno di provola e menta (or fried ravioli stuffed with cheese and mint) that evoked scenes of ‘You miserable little maggot. I'll stove your head in!’ The tagliere at 500 beat the pants off the pig’s ticklers at Brawn. A must must order!

Additional starter of gnocchi al ragu di salsiccia (with sausage ragu).

The excellent and beguiling ‘push-pull’ texture of the gnocchi ensured that "They’re coming home, they’re coming home, they’re coming, the Italians have finally come home to London!” The sausage mince reminded me of our own superlative coils of peppery Cumberland sausage. If you’ve ever wondered what cucina povera style of cooking is all about, this dish epitomised it.

Marina’s orata in beccafico con spinaci (sea bream fillets filled with bread, pine nuts, capers, anchovies and oranges, served with spinach).
The fish was faultless and the seasoning was spot-on. Why do girls always order
only fish, chicken or salad?

George’s Capesante con crema di porri e patate (pan fried sea scallops with a puree of leeks and potatoes).
The five fat scallops were perfectly cooked, sweet and sublime. The crispy rashers of pancetta turned the rest of us into shameless scavengers. Why do metrosexuals always order
only fish, chicken or salad?

Pete’s pappardelle al ragu di manzo (with slow cooked beef in tomato sauce).
Now I did warn Pete that 500 don’t serve burgers (read here) so he made do with this enticing beefy pasta choice. It was so tormentingly sumptuous one could just scoff and slurp up the entire contents in a matter of minutes, and banish any thoughts on tight table manners or chewing each mouthful 32 times. The pasta dishes at 500 are capable of making one weep tears of joy.

The almighty signature secondo of coniglio con peperoni, pomodori e olive nere or slow cooked rabbit with peppers, tomatoes and black olives.

You haven’t been to 500 if you fail to order this dish. An astonishing plate of rustic splendour; the heady olive sauce was so obviously concocted to work hand in glove with the tender, gorgeous meat (and not too rabbity either).

Carb fiends, there were enough first-class spuds for you to gorge on; case of having one in your mouth, one on your fork and the eyes on the next one.

Semifreddo alla menta bianca (white mint ice cream with a chocolate centre topped with a dark chocolate sauce).
Apparently nice so said Pete.

Average but a bit more rum or Marsala would sway me more favourably.

If Delhi Grill was my restaurant of 2010 then 500 has to be the leading contender for my 2011 choice. The regulars from Hornsey and Archway would undoubtedly flinch about more hearsay of letting the cat out of the bag but they can’t deny the fact that 500’s a restaurant worthy of adoration and acclamation. 500 is cheap, unpretentious and best of all, the food served here is heavenly. Highly recommended.

500 Restaurant
782 Holloway Road
London N19 3JH


Mr Noodles said...

I remember you enthusing about 500 when we last met. And now I can see why! It really does look top notch, and healthy sized portions to boot (you can take the boy out of the North, but you can't...).

PS: I'd forgotten that you had Delhi Grill down as your fave last year. Remind me again, just how did you acquire your 'contrarian' tag?!

Anonymous said...

Planet kebab > archway kebab for authentic turkish kebab

For the best budget italian in london.

I heart cupcakes said...

Hey Mr B - I was going to comment on your latest post but couldn't for some reason.
Did Miss M tell you that you are the recommended food blog in Essentials magazine this month? I was sat reading it in a cafe and noticed! Can send you a pic if you like!

bellaphon said...

Mr Noodles...and to think that I haven't even bothered posting about my visits to places like Dinner, Pollen Street Social, St John Hotel and The Gilbert Scott. That tag stays methinks.

Anon- Thank you for the Capri rec, I went there three years ago (pre-blogging days) and found it very good. A revisit's in order.

IHC- Hey cupcakes, yes she did and thank you. Just can't find the mag anywhere so yes please with the pic.

Su-Lin said...

Booooo.... Acton is awesome! But yeah, we have no good Italian joints here.

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