Thanks to its simplicity and focus on quality ingredients, it’s difficult to get Italian food wrong, but, as such, it’s even harder to get it really, really right. A store-bought tub of pesto and a packet of dried pasta might suffice when you’re in a rush, but it simply does not compare to the taste of the freshly rolled pasta and immaculately balanced sauces that an experienced Italian chef can bring to the table.
Luckily, London just so happens to be full of experienced Italian chefs, dotted all over the city in kitchens at some of the finest restaurants. If you're in the mood for a hearty Italian meal, whether you have pasta craving or want to indulge in tiramisu, these are the places to head for your fix. Yes, we know you do a mean bolognese at home, but, trust us, these restaurants are more than worth the trip.
Bocca Di Lupo is one of those Italian monoliths in London that one knows exists long before one eats there. The brainchild of Jacob Kenedy, who co-authored the seminal and aesthetically pleasing The Geometry Of Pasta, it serves a menu of grilled food and fritti alongside exceptional pastas. Taking the best bits of every Italian region, the menu offers small and large versions of most dishes so you can go as broad as you like.
The orecchiette with 'nduja is a staple, but the rigatoni con la pajata (pajata are calf intestines with the mother’s milk inside) is exceptional and weird at once: the creaminess of this highly specific offal almost tasting like foie gras. The lobster pasta is also a show-stopping display of carapace and carbohydrate. From the grill, it’s worth checking out their porchetta, which is so moist as to seem chemically impossible. If you need a side, the borlotti beans offer a perfect blend of creamy legume and salsa-like bite.
12 Archer Street, London W1. boccadilupo.com
There are very few restaurants in London that can claim a more attractive location than Campania, which has spooled across the many rooms of a former dairy just off Columbia Road. It feels like you’re at an intimate wedding in the Italian countryside, no matter where they plant you.
There’s not a single bad dish on the menu here, though the gnudi – pillowy, soft and then finished with butter and sage – stand out in a crowded field of masterpieces. The polpettone among the mains is also deeply satisfying: the sort of thing you want on the coldest, rainiest of days, deeply meaty, perfectly saline, swaddled in red sauce.
Do everything within your power to have room for dessert too: there aren’t many better tiramisus in the capital. Plus: Aesop in the bathrooms. Does it get any better?
23 Ezra Street, London E2. campaniaandjones.com
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Headed up by chef Louis Korovilas, who previously worked at Locanda Locatelli, Bancone in Covent Garden takes its inspiration from many of the 21 regions of Italy. The result? An exciting combination of both traditional plates and new creations.
On offer is a short but simple menu (though that’s definitely not a bad thing) and to kick things off, you can’t go wrong with the globe of creamy burrata served with green beans and sticky pine nut dressing and a slab of their freshly baked honeyed focaccia that’s studded with cloves of confit garlic. However, the exceptionally good pasta – hand-rolled in the window – is the main draw. The spicy pork 'nduja ragu with mafalde pasta has just the right amount of kick and the wonderfully straightforward cacio and pepe is as smooth as can be. But the standout dish, without doubt, is the silk handkerchiefs with walnut butter and confit egg yolk – and at £9 it’s a steal, too. If you can find space for dessert (and we recommend you do) opt for the balsamic chocolate mousse with cherries, oats and goats curd snow. You won’t regret it.
39 William IV Street, WC2. bancone.co.uk
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When you first walk into Mayfair’s Bocconcino, there are a few things that stand out. First up will be your own reflection, bounced back at you by the mirror panelling that lines the restaurant’s mezzanine-meets-lobby. Then there’s the spiral staircase that swoops down to the lower floor, glass handrails glistening in the soft golden light. In the upper dining room, there’s an olive tree, satisfyingly positioned exactly in the centre of the space. In the bathrooms, marble and gold furnishings ensure that the Bocconcino experience never wavers.
Yes, this is a restaurant that serves its diners decadence before they’ve even picked up the menu, but it’s most certainly not a case of style over substance. When it comes to the food, start with the aubergine parmigiana, which boasts gloriously gooey mozzarella offset by fresh basil, and then move on to the truffle gnocchi for a truly indulgent treat. After that, you’ll more than likely be stuffed, but we urge you to power through and delve into their dessert menu: the Sicilian cannoli with pistachio ice cream is too good to miss and will ensure your meal ends on a sweet note, both literally and figuratively.
19 Berkeley Street, London W1. bocconcinorestaurant.co.uk
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Tucked away in a quiet corner on Savile Row sits Sartoria, Francesco Mazzei's Italian sanctuary, which offers modern twists on traditional flavours without any pretension. Cosy, warm and inviting, it’s the kind of restaurant that would suit any occasion, whether you’re celebrating a big birthday with a big group of people or simply fancy treating yourself to some really good pasta.
When it comes to the menu, we suggest you resist the familiar and opt for dishes that you're less likely to find in other restaurants. Instead of the burrata (which is still delicious, by the way), choose the stuffed courgette flower, mozzarella and anchovies. It all comes deep fried in delicious parcels with melted cheese and yet is still light enough to leave room for a hearty main. As for the pasta, it doesn’t get much better than lobster tagliolini with Amalfi lemon, chilli and basil – seafood and citrus flavours are always a winning combo – but the pappardelle rabbit ragout is also an excellent option if you’re in the mood for something a bit meatier. Whatever you choose, let the sommelier pair wine options to complement your meal and give it that extra bit of finesse. After all, when in Rome...
20 Savile Row, London W1. sartoria-restaurant.co.uk
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Situated on Covent Garden’s Great Queen Street, right next to Freemasons’ Hall, Margot is perfectly poised to be your next pre-show dinner spot. The brainchild of Paulo de Tarso and Nicolas Jaouën, who previously worked together at Mayfair’s glamorous Scott’s, the restaurant takes classic Italian cuisine to the next level, with a menu of elevated but unfussy pasta dishes, as well as a delicious range of fish and meat plates.
Once you’ve settled in and enjoyed the complimentary bread (Margot is a serious contender for having the best focaccia in London), we recommend starting your meal with the uovo in camicia, which comes with poached eggs, asparagus and a Parmesan “foam” that, once you’ve tried, you’ll want to pour on everything. It would be a shame to visit Margot and not try their pasta, so opt for the pappardelle con ragù di cinghiale – wild boar to those of us who need to brush up on our Italian – if you’re in the mood for something rich, or the linguine vongole if you want a lighter dish. Polish off the evening with the Margot Petit Gâteau, a glazed chocolate mousse which comes with wild berry marmalade, almond dacquoise and a wild berry coulis. It tastes as good as it sounds.
45 Great Queen Street, London WC2. margotrestaurant.com
As the country shivers under the grey sky of our dreary political climate, there is a corner of East London that has brought sunshine, good times and a trattoria off the coast of Capri to the capital. The brainchild of Frenchmen Tigrane Seydoux and Victor Lugger from Paris’ Big Mamma Group, Gloria is light and loud, chintzy and charming, vibrant and vivacious… you get the idea.
As playful as the whole setup, the menu reads like a Carry On film script translated from English to Italian, and then back again, by someone who only speaks French. So to start, order a portion of Filippo’s Big Balls (slow-cooked meatballs in San Marzano tomato sauce), a Black Mamba (cuttlefish stew in squid ink), 19-month-aged San Daniele ham, and the Smoked Stracciatella (the gorgeously gloopy heart of burrata) that is so good it doesn’t need a comedy name. For your main course, you’ll be in pasta and pizza heaven. It’s all pretty good (Giorgio Locatelli won’t be panicking), with big portions and full flavours. Keep the theme going with a YouPorn pizza, 10 Level Lasagne, La Gran Carbonara, and the girella alla cacciatore (a ribbon of ravioli on a garlicky rabbit ragù. And for desert, it’s hard to resist the preposterously sized lemon meringue pie or cricket-ball-sized profiterole, but you should… plump for the pistachio gelato instead.
54-56 Great Eastern Street, London EC2. bigmammagroup.com/fr/trattorias/gloria
From the same company behind Shoreditch’s Gloria, Big Mamma Group, Circolo Popolare is certainly well-endowed. With 280 covers, plus space for another 60 on the outdoor terrace, it measures 835 square metres and is every bit as flamboyant as Gloria. The interior features more than 20,000 bottles on the shelves, beautiful lighting and forests of foliage. Almost all of the staff are Italian, the food is affordable, filling and delicious and the vibe is something like a Summer wedding in Sicily.
“We want people to fall in love with us and have a great time,” one of the cofounders of the Big Mamma Group, Victor Lugger explains. “At the moment, things are going great and we feel we can do anything, but it’s because we think carefully about every detail, work hard and have fun with everything. If we aren’t having fun, how can we expect our guests to?”
And if you don’t have fun at Circolo Popolare, you won’t have fun anywhere.
40-41 Rathbone Place, London W1. bigmammagroup.com/en/trattorias/circolo-popolare
A city break to Italy could be a financial stretch for some, but we've discovered a restaurant that replicates the vibe and food of an upscale trattoria you could stumble across in a lovely cobbled street in Toscana.
Located on the quiet New Burlington Place lies the beautiful Ristorante Frescobaldi of the renowned Frescobaldi family, and it's a little Mayfair gem that we'll definitely be revisiting. Here, they display wines that they say have been served to the likes of Renaissance visionaries and Popes, the waiters and waitresses provide an exquisitely pleasant service, and the walls are adorned with murals and the ceiling is covered in ivy, making it feel as though you've entered a 15th century Italian villa.
Interiors alone, Frescobaldi does what quality Italian restaurants tend to do: produce high-quality dishes made from fresh, hearty ingredients. The impressive menu may overwhelm, but we advise that you start with the crab cakes (wholesome and more-ish), the squid (meaty and refreshing), move onto the beef fillet (tender, chunky and beautiful) or the tagliolini con tartufo nero (worldly), and finish off with the mille feuille (creamy, flaky, and downright delicious).
15 New Burlington Place, London W1. frescobaldi.london
Best restaurants guide Michelin-starred chef Theo Randall brings the taste of Italy to you in self-titled eatery, Theo Randall at the InterContinental, combining Park Lane’s elegance with hearty, moreish pasta dishes.
To get things going, try the smoked eel with beetroot and horseradish and then opt for either the sea bream or wood roasted guinea fowl for secondi. One of the worst first-world problems is returning to a restaurant you loved and discovering it does not live up to your gilt-edged memories. Thankfully, there will be no tears after a second visit to Theo Randall in Park Lane. Thirteen years since opening, and the deceptively simple brilliance of this Italian food is as vibrant as ever.
InterContinental, 1 Hamilton Place, London W1. theorandall.com/
Steve Parle is quietly and confidently making quite the name for himself as one of London’s most talented and creative chef-restaurateurs. Having worked at the River Café and Petersham Nurseries, he is a pop-up pioneer (with the Moveable Kitchen), a writer (he is the author of three cookbooks and a former newspaper columnist), a TV presenter (with a series on Channel 4) and the head of a burgeoning restaurant group (Dock Kitchen, Rotorino, Craft, Sardine and Palatino). His latest venture in Soho is a bright and buzzy pasta place that is heavy on flavour but light on the wallet. The menu is small and seasonal, the communal tables are large and loud, and the food is delicious.
On GQ’s visit, there were nine pasta dishes on the menu and they all sounded good. Slow-cooked sausage ragu with malloreddus (Sardinian gnocchi) was rich and spicy, with a depth of flavour that seemed to follow us out of the restaurant like a gorgeous groupie. Even better was the pheasant, rabbit and pork agnoli – little punchy parcels of pleasure in a slick and sexy sauce that would reduce Giorgio Locatelli to tears of joy. On the antipasti menu, the clams and mussels were exceptional; the salt-water sweeties piled generously on top of butter-soaked cubes of crusty bread. For hungrier/greedier guests, the mozzarella, nduja and honey sandwich is almost Elvis-like in its gastronomic indulgence. And remember to wash it all down with a Prosecco slushy, if only because it is a slushy… made from Prosecco. Genius! 19 Ganton Street, London W1. pastaio.london
Famed for its laid-back vibe, old-world grandeur and authentic Italian cuisine, it's no wonder Franco's has been a London hot spot since the Forties. The gospel of tasting rooms, nouveau burgers and artisanal mocktails is still preached all over town, but some of the capital's heritage restaurants continue to thrive without yielding to fickle trends. Franco's is a recently spruced-up pocket of old-world grandeur in St James's that packs itself out every lunch time, just as it has done since opening in the Forties. The draw? Dependably enjoyable, authentic Italian food and its twinning a starched-linen sense of ceremony with a laid-back atmosphere (the place prides itself on having the longest rosé list in London - and a good terrace on which to drink it). Like a church, it ushers the local hedgies through its doors again and again. The power table is 25.
**61 Jermyn Street, London SW1. francoslondon.com
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