Bocca di Lupo, London

I was sold on Bocca di Lupo (literally “mouth of the wolf” but also apparently an Italian good luck greeting, along the lines of “break a leg”) long before I ever ate there.  Everything about the place seemed perfect: the location in Soho, close to our hotel (no need to stint on the excellent wine list or cocktails), the atmospheric surroundings, and a menu that takes a gastronomic tour of the Italian regions with authentic dishes and proper ingredients, presenting a riot of colours, flavours and unusual delights that leave the taste buds tingling (desserts too, though watch out for the pig’s blood and chocolate!)

All the links I read suggested this to be one of London’s best-kept secrets (see here and here and here and here), a restaurant that does not get rave reviews screaming from the Sundays, but certainly pleases regulars and visitors who appreciate the finer things in life.  Like me! The praise is certainly not universal, a bit sniffy in places, but ample reason to investigate further.

One appealing factor is the tapas-like small plates, currently all the rage, of which I have written before.  You get to share lots of dishes, though be careful since the price can mount steeply if you’re not careful.  The small dishes range from £6 to £10, though other items are priced per piece or by weight.  Suppli, for example, are delicious croquettes made of rice, tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, but there is no shortage of choice – bocconcini, baccala, ‘nduja and many more highly authentic Italian names and ingredients.

If you’re on a night of celebration, go for it and to hell with the price – and there are expensive dishes that make the mouth water.  Two such are: “tagliata – grilled bone-in sirloin, for 2-10 to share, served with rosemary, balsamic vinegar, rocket & parmesan” at £25.5o per head, and “roast suckling pig & grapes with wine & bay” for £27.50, though both being big dishes and with so many small dishes to choose from, those will have to wait til the next visit. The main issue with the menu is that everything sounds so gorgeous, how can you possibly choose?

That problem was momentarily on pause as we entered the restaurant and savoured the interior, starting with the proscuitto crudo sitting on a slicer directly opposite the door.  We were shown to our table by a very charming young Italian, who set the standard for an evening of impeccable, warm, friendly, knowledgeable but never overly intrusive, nor ever pompous service, unusually deserving of the 12.5% placed on the menu.  This is quite an art form, one which 98% of restaurants screw up to a greater or lesser degree, so for me to say the waiters and even the sommelier never put a foot wrong all night is praise indeed.

We began the evening with a pair of bellinis, the cocktail reputedly invented in Harry’s Bar in Venice, and consisting of white peach granita and prosecco.  The only problem was that there was insufficient to quench our thirst.  Can’t speak for anyone else, but I could easily have drunk a litre of bellini on what was a very warm day!

Also worthy of praise, the breads and olives were masterpieces.  I can’t remember having had bread this good in any restaurants, which is another statement of excellence I did not expect to be repeating here.  The focaccia in particular was light, flavoursome, soaked in olive oil and melted in the mouth.

As for the food, we sampled the small plates aplenty, which the kitchen (totally open) sifted into the patterns of Italian courses for serving purposes. First came the flavoursome salad of buffalo mozzarella with broad beans, lemon zest and mint, a tad subtle but quality ingredients – and I always did enjoy broad beans, supplemented by suppli sides (see above), which were very home made, warmly welcomed and delicious.

Round two, as in Italy, came pasta and risotti, in this case sheep’s ricotta tortelloni served with walnut pesto, and risotto of girolle mushrooms with parmesan.  The tortellone proved glorious examples of their kind, with a very fresh egg pasta in vivid yolk yellow.  The risotto had, almost uniquely, the right creamy texture, though my companion found it a touch over-salted.

Finally, the meat and fish dishes.  In this case, we selected some crackers.  First up, mouthwateringly tender veal tongue, served with a “polenta” made from bread and bone marrow, salsa verde and home-candied mostarda, which as you will surely know is fruit pickled in a mustard dressing.  The latter was not to my companion’s taste, though I lapped it up.  However, the veal truly surprised and delighted her, which I regard as a major success story.

Next came a lamb chop.  A huge lamb chop and a lamb chop like no other I have ever tasted.  It was cooked pink, and with flavour such that the taste buds tingled in ecstasy.  It was truly a legend among lamb chops.  And hot on its heels, our only fish dish: the sweetest scallops you ever did taste, seared to perfection and, like the foccacia before it, melting in the mouth.

All of the above was washed down with a splendid bottle of Sicilian Frappato, chosen with help from the sommelier from an excellent selection of regional Italian wines for its fresh, fruity properties and splendidly perky accompaniment to our food selection.

If all the above sounds dangerously like a puff for the restaurant, who I can assure the reader are not paying me for writing this review, the desserts sent us dangerously close to delirium.  The lady chose “the friar’s habit” – a lethal cocktail of espresso granita, hazelnut gelato & Frangelico, a gloriously piquant hazelnut liqueur.  Were it not for my dessert, I would have described this as perfect.  That prize must go to the blood orange granita with almonds and mint.  I love blood orange at the best of times, but now I have to find a way to repeat the intensely bittersweet orange flavour padlocked into iced granules.  it was simply sublime!

All of the above came far from cheap, but somehow I did not resent a penny of it.  For a restaurant this good, I cannot possibly object to the cost – it created a memory which will long outlive the work required to pay it off!

If we did have any criticisms they would be that the tables are too close together and the hum of conversation too loud.  We turned this to advantage later on by chatting with our neighbours, but a way to ease the overcrowding would have made the evening complete. The tables themselves were uncovered and heavily stained, which is in keeping with the small homely restaurants back in small Italian towns.  To my companion this indicated lack of pretension, though she did like the quality starched serviettes which she identifies as a clear step up from the places that offer paper serviettes.  Granted that dry cleaning fine linen tablecloths costs restaurants a humungous sum, but maybe someday BdL will feel it has reached the critical mass and critical acclaim to go beyond its rustic roots and aim for a more prestigious market.

However this is one restaurant to which I will return, and there are not too many of those.  Thank you to Bocca di Lupo for a fine evening of dining from two satisfied and replete diners.


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