It would be lovely to think that a small business such as this could find a niche — but it’s hard to escape the sense that the place is simply out of time, says Richard Godwin.
Bottega Friulana is a new restaurant on Portobello Road that feels as if it has been there for much longer. It feels so lived in that it took a few moments to realise that it had taken the place of the long-standing Kingsland butcher’s. In fact, it has the dysfunctional website and salvia scent of a first-generation London Italian, the sort of place you might have found in Soho in the days when Elizabeth David still had to convince readers of Italian Food (1963) that eating in Italy did not solely consist of veal, pasta and “all that stodge”, a state of affairs that she blamed mainly on “waiters and restaurant keepers”.
Who knows, with a few more candles flickering and conversations humming it may have felt livelier but the only other diner was a solitary figure from a Joseph Conrad novel, polishing off a bottle of wine by himself, possibly about to do something awful. “How’s business?” we asked the waiter. He made a kind of “hmph” sound.
Friuli is the supposed source of inspiration here, the north-eastern region between Venice and Slovenia. The photocopied menu ran to a handful of pan-Italian starters and pasta dishes. Vitello tonnato (cold veal garnished with tuna mayo — “this sounds outlandish but is in fact a most excellent combination,” says David) is from Piedmont, for example.
We placed ourselves in the hands of the waiter, who suggested sarde in saor (the classic Venetian sardine dish, £8) and baccala (creamed cod with polenta, £8), which he recommended heartily only to return 30 seconds later to tell us it was finished. In its place he brought cantaloupe melon and San Daniele ham (£11), which was no better or worse than you or I could have produced after a trip to Sainsbury’s. Still, at least it was edible, unlike the sardines, which arrived with a powerful pong reminiscent of the cans I used to detest as a boy. Properly made, with crispy, deep-fried fish and melting agrodolce onions, this can be a salty delight … as opposed to bland soggy mush that concealed ulcerating shards of fishbone in each painful mouthful. Actively unpleasant.
The homemade gnocchi (£8) were lumpy and came in a ricotta-and-leek sauce with a few bits of smoked duck traipsed across it. I ate it because I was hungry. My friend’s tortelli with beetroot (£8) at least looked pretty, pink and yellow with a buttery sauce specked with poppy seeds, but the attendant sage leaves were wilted when they really should have been nice and crisp.
Could they do anything right? Well, the wine list had some good Gavi by the glass at £7.95 (again, not from Friuli but from Piedmont). The grappa (£7) cleansed the palate. When a family of seven turned up and the lonely spy slipped away it felt a little less moribund. It would be lovely to think that a small business such as this could find a niche — maybe a few loyal lunchtime customers? Still, it was hard to escape the sense that the place was simply out of time.
140 Portobello Road, W11 (020 7243 9382). A meal for two with wine, around £75.
Source: London Evening Standard