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Discovering a Feast of Sun

Italian food can bring out the best and the worst from a restaurant kitchen. I know I'll never be able to eat spaghetti with meat sauce again after the overload of the heady '70s. When did the concept of a good Italian restaurant become warped to include garlic bread in tin foil and dreaded meatballs in tomato liquid? (the recipe for which is immortalized by Peter Clemenza in The Godfather: "Then you add a pinch of sugar, Mikey.") And when did we begin to judge the quality of good mozzarella by its ability to give a good squeak between the teeth?

But light, original Italian fare has, I think, made a solid comeback. Foods from the Mediterranean deserve to be showcased with a minimum of added process. After all, it takes a rare combination of sun and soil to produce a luxurious roma tomato or olive oil that actually resembles the description "fruity" or "peppery". The best example I've read of perfect Mediterranean food comes from the California überchef Jeremiah Tower, who waxed lyrically in his seminal book New American Classics about a plate of summer tomatoes surrendering their juices under a hot, Moroccan sun. A handful of herbs, sea salt, and ground pepper complete the miracle - raw veg becomes an indulgence.

There's a kitchen in Soho that has got this concept right and won't empty your wallet to enjoy. Il Forno has been in its Frith Street location for about a year now. Owner Claudio Pulze is also behind the excellent Al Duca and Zaika, serving up modern Italian and Indian cuisine respectively. Il Forno's dishes are reminiscent of spring, regardless of the actual season that you dine there. Vegetables are prominent and portions are sized to allow you to comfortably eat three courses.

We began with thinly sliced, smoked swordfish with herby greens (£4.50). The delicate fish performed the tricky feat of avoiding excessive salt or oiliness. A nicely layered salad of grilled aubergine, basil leaves, and buffalo mozzarella (£4.25) was pleasant to look at and better to eat. Subtle buffalo milk cheese is completely different from Domino's pre-shredded, bubbly gook. Don't be intimidated by the fact that the cheese comes from an animal that looks like the primitive, hirsute ancestor of your typical Guernsey cow. This mozzarella melts rather than squeaks in the mouth.

My dining companions both tried large, thin and aromatic pizzas. One with tomato, bresaola, rocket, and goat's cheese (£7) balanced the rich bresaola (a beef prosciutto) and creamy base with the bite of the rocket leaves. Many dishes I saw were scattered, unannounced in the menu, with this arugula (or rocket if you prefer its sexier pseudonym). I happen to be a rocket man myself, but if you're in the clan who find it to be too bitter, you should probably ask the waiter to leave it off your order. The other pizza on our table had the lovely buffalo mozzarella, leeks, and pancetta, an Italian bacon (£6.50). I wolfed down home made pasta with peas, pancetta, and the ubiquitous rocket (£6.25). This traditional dish in the wrong hands becomes a morass of cream and salt. But my plate showcased the fresh pasta, which deserves to be sauced gently. Freshly rolled noodles have a different texture from their dried cousin, with stronger tangs of egg and olive oil.

Then came dessert.

To tiramisu or not to tiramisu, that was the question. Whether 'twas nobler on the tongue to suffer the pangs and cravings of outrageous sugar, or to take in arm a sea of latte and in the drinking, end them? Who am I fooling? I tiramisued for £3.25 and I'd do it again. Cleverly composed in a coffee cup, the layers of almond biscuit, cream, and cocoa avoided becoming a mess of saccharine goo. Instead, it boldly suggested roasted coffee beans, bitter chocolate, and amaretto. Though I could barely be nudged away from my dessert, I admired my partner's colourful plate of fresh fruits and sorbets (£3.25), which butted sweet and tart against each other to the blissful end.

We savoured the only rose on the wine list, a '98 Collamento Rosato at £14.50 that seemed to compliment everything we tasted. All wines on the menu are from Italy and can be ordered by the glass from £3 to £6.50, or by the bottle from £11.50 for a '98 Chardonnay Garganega or '98 Merlot Corvina to a Barolo Ornato Pio Cesare at £98 (no, that's not the year). Our bill for three people, three courses each, came to £68 with a 12.5% service charge. I was impressed, satisfied, and I still had a few notes in my pocket when I left. Is there a greater compliment?

Adam Kingl - January 2001

Il Forno - 63-64 Frith Street, London, W1V 5TA
Tel: 020 7734 4545 Fax: 020 7287 8624
Open for lunch 12-3 Mon-Fri, dinner 6-10:45 Mon-Sat

Other Claudio Pulze restaurants:

  • Al Duca - 4-5 Duke of York Street, London, SW1Y 6LA
    Tel: 020 7839 3090 Fax: 020 7839 4050
  • Zaika - 257-259 Fulham Road, London, SW3 6HY
    Tel: 020 7351 7823 Fax: 020 7376 4971


UK Restaurant Reviews – The Best Of The Dine Online Restaurant Reviews 2001 - 2010

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