Palatino: ‘Better than in Rome’

Palatino: ‘Better than in Rome’

Palatino, 71 Central Street, London EC1V 8AB (020 3481 5300). Meal for two, including drinks and service: £60 to £90

The late AA Gill was once so infuriated by the quality of the food he was served at a London Italian that he left the restaurant, hailed a cab to Heathrow, jumped on a plane and a few hours later was eating the real thing in Rome. It was a beautiful journalistic stunt, and a tribute to many things, including Gill’s shamelessness, but mostly to the financial resources he enjoyed at his newspaper. If I tried something like that at Palatino, chef Stevie Parle’s Roman-themed venture near London’s Old Street, expenses would get me no more than a Boris bike to an Italian caff in Highbury.

Except I don’t want to leave. Ever. I am very happy here in my lunchtime booth, as deep winter daylight falls, the lovely things keep arriving at my table and a fug of contentment settles. If I wanted to infuriate the partially travelled, I could now wonder aloud whether London’s restaurants do a better job of the regional food of Europe than the regions do themselves. I could, for example, suggest that Palatino is a far better Roman restaurant than most of the restaurants in Rome. That would drive people really nuts, wouldn’t it? So let’s give it a go: I enjoyed my trip to Rome a couple of years back. I found a fabulous place near where the abattoirs once stood, specialising in offal. They had an uncompromising way with the darker, danker organs.

‘Frilly overcoat of lightest batter’: fried sage and squash.
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 ‘Frilly overcoat of lightest batter’: fried sage and squash. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer

As for the rest, they had identikit menus, executed with a lethargic hand, and served by bored-looking chaps in white jackets who glanced at their watches come 9pm. They seemed to know that, when it came to food in Rome, choice was limited to same menu, different place. So you might as well stay here. Palatino is an altogether perkier affair, as is London. Restaurateurs here know you always have a real choice; that they have to work damn hard to bring you in and keep you there.

It occupies the front area of one of those shared working spaces with which this part of London is infested. There’s a café area with an events “arena” where, from time to time, I’m sure people are tortured with dreadful PowerPoints even the presenters don’t understand. The ceiling is all exposed ducting.

‘Butched up with ’nduja’: clams with chickpeas.
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 ‘Butched up with ’nduja’: clams with chickpeas. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer

And yet, for all that, Palatino, with its tall windows, open kitchen and banquettes upholstered in leather the colour of English mustard, retains its own identity. Parle started as an exceedingly young man cooking a restless menu at the Dock Kitchen over in Ladbroke Grove. The success of the food there depends upon how deep into the culture he has gone. It’s clear he knows and loves the Roman repertoire, and wants to give it the love it deserves.

From the list of antipasti, we have sage leaves and pieces of brilliant orange squash sliced gossamer-thin, then deep-fried in a frilly overcoat of the lightest batter, alongside a dipping bowl of honey-sweetened vinegar. It’s £4.50 of focus and sigh and, “Well this is a good start isn’t it?” As is their cacio e pepe, that excruciatingly simple dish of tonnarelli (square-cut spaghetti) with a creamy sauce of black pepper and pecorino, whipped up using just a little of the starchy pasta water. It is one of those dishes that seemed to appear out of nowhere 18 months ago in London and was suddenly everywhere, but with good reason. It is soothing, but with a grown-up mule-like kick from the cracked black pepper and salty sour cheese. The version here is a defence against winter days and despondency.

Rigatoni with veal pajata – the intestines tied off and long braised; remember, if you kill it, you eat all of it – comes in an insistent tomato and chilli sauce. The offal is deep and soft without being overly funky. The sauce stops it all becoming cloying. It is an intense expression of that Roman interest in the bits of animals others overlook. Another starter of clams with chickpeas comes in a broth butched up with ’nduja, the fiery Calabrian salami. It’s a great vehicle for chickpeas and an even better one for clams.

‘Leaps into the mouth’: saltimbocca.
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 ‘Leaps into the mouth’: saltimbocca. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer

We could have moved straight from there to dessert, but we are doing things properly, as are they. The great Roman dish of saltimbocca – literally “leap into the mouth” – is precisely as it should be, the veal beaten out then laid with sage leaves and wrapped in prosciutto, before being sautéed off in a sweet marsala-based sauce. If you haven’t tried it before, try it here.

A fillet of bream, its skin burnished to bronze, is seasoned with salted anchovies, rosemary and lemon, and comes with bitter salad leaves and roasted fennel. On the side we have their new potatoes, first boiled, then crushed a little until bursting out of their skins, then fried to golden crisp with garlic. Two days later I will make these at home. I know I will keep making them.

‘Skin burnished to bronze’: bream.
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 ‘Skin burnished to bronze’: bream. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer

Dessert involves both a cheat and a piece of cleverness. The cheat is their rum baba. Making individual babas is tricky and time-consuming. Usually some have to be discarded. So they make a sizeable loaf of brioche and serve a thick, rum syrup-sodden slice of it, with cooling mascarpone and roasted quince. It looks nothing like a rum baba should. Texturally it eats exactly right, the dry-looking slice releasing its ballast of sweet syrup as you bite in. The beautiful green pistachio and saffron cake, £1 from which goes to the charity CookforSyria, is the clever bit. It’s a two-stage affair. Half the moderately dry mix, loosened with egg yolks, goes into the tin, followed by the rest, with the whipped egg whites folded in. The result is a soft, moist, almost souffléd cake on top, with its own crisper base.

Starters are £7 or £8 with mains in the mid-teens, but there’s also an early-evening set menu offering three courses for £19. Plus, there’s the all-Italian wine list on which everything from the £22 a bottle Catarratto, to the £500 a magnum of 1996 Sassicaia, Tenuta San Guido, is available by the glass. Admittedly the latter is £50, but it makes trying these things much more possible.

‘Piece of cleverness’: rum baba.
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 ‘Piece of cleverness’: rum baba. Photograph: Karen Robinson for the Observer

So now old Rome hands will tell me about brilliant places I missed. They’ll tell me that they are half the price. And I’ll tell them they’re also an air fare away. I think I’ll stick with Palatino.

Jay’s news bites

Palatino feels like a companion piece to Radici, Francesco Mazzei’s relaunch of the old Almeida site in London’s Islington. It’s an airy, casual trattoria with a cheerfully priced menu of pastas and wood-fired pizzas, alongside various small plates. Taglierini with white beans and pancetta is a substantial winter plateful for £8. He recently opened a sibling called Fiume at the Battersea Power Station site, with a similar menu (radici.uk).

A snapshot of Britain at Christmas 2017. At time of writing the top five best sellers in the Amazon grocery section were French vodka, a complicated-sounding gin, rhubarb and ginger liqueur, spiced rum and Aberfeldy 12-year-old single malt. Oh, and an assortment of retro sweets. Sounds like a good night in.

Gary Maclean, the brilliant chef lecturer who won last year’s MasterChef: The Professionals, has been appointed as the first National Chef for Scotland, employed to promote the country’s produce, both by demonstrating recipes online and at national events.

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