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Giardinetto, Albemarle Street, London W1

Dine Online's Favourite Italian Restaurant 2005

This really is a lovely restaurant.  It does not come cheap, (although lunch is exceptionally good value at £22 for three courses), but you get what you pay for in abundance. Diners are split up into a succession of smaller, elegant rooms that are understated but provide comfortable leather seating. The noise level is perfect - you don't have to shout across the table, yet there's a happy atmosphere. 

The staff are both charming, knowledgeable, highly skilled and observant. The wine list is incredible, with many wines available by the glass or as tasting samples. The madly enthusiastic sommelier is Christian Bucci, (he has an equally enthusiastic assistant) whose principal aim in life is to delight your palate. Then there's the chef, Maurizio Vilona, who comes from Liguria, and whose cooking I found to be most accomplished. Above all, there appeared to be careful thought and direction behind everything. No effort seems to be spared in making their guests happy. 

That's quite an introduction, so let me be a little more specific about why I rate this place so highly. Giardinetto is quite the most exciting Italian restaurant since discovering Zafferano exactly ten years ago. I've been raving on lately about robust paysan style cooking, and the celebration of traceable produce, especially game since it's now in season. But this week I've visited two restaurants that display an almost magical alchemy, combining art and culinary skill in ways that have recently gone a little out of fashion. The first was Giardinetto, and the second was the new Glade restaurant at Sketch. To criticise Pierre Gagnaire's cooking at Sketch, or Maurizio's at Giardinetto, for being too fussy and elaborate, is to lose the plot where culinary art is concerned. Gastronomy is not only about comfort food: a deliciously slow cooked belly of pork or a supremely unctuous oxtail parmentier are but one facet, a surfeit of which would surely hasten the arrival of the grim reaper. 

Maurizio Vilona's menu is divided into the classic sections of Antipasti, Primi Piatti, Pesce e Carni - backed up with a few Contorni - then Formaggi e Dolci. From the antipasti, my guest chose the medallions of lobster - tender morsels of the crustacean in an exquisitely delicate pumpkin sauce. I was so glad I had selected the pasta arlecchino, which was shaped like canneloni made of layers of differently coloured pasta in harlequin rings of green, red, black, yellow and white, rather like old fashioned hooped football stockings, stuffed with a shrimp and broccoli mousse and served with a delicious clam sauce with hints of saffron. 

We then went on to the primi piatti, beginning with Pansotti, a pasta parcel not unlike ravioli, stuffed with spinach in an amazing creamy walnut sauce which seemed to have a quite unique and lovely flavour. Another delicious primo piatto, was the Minestrone Genovese. One associates minestrone with those terrible Trattorie of the 1970s with panoramic photo montages of the bay of Naples taking up one whole wall. This minestrone looked almost like a risotto. It's green colour comes from the basil pesto (that's the Genovese part). Little pasta noodles are the substitute for rice, and there are other vegetables that combine subtly to create the rich creamy texture. This was another dish that was quite deliciously out of the ordinary - soup it was emphatically not.

We had one main fish dish and one of meat. There was delicately steamed monkfish which came with black risotto infused with cuttle fish ink - a brilliant  presentation which was no triumph of mere style over substance. I had a dish of the day, which was roast pigeon - proveniente da allevamento biologico - which means free range organic, does this mean "wild", I now wonder?- I should have thought to ask at the time. Our waiter Dino would have known. He was at pains to warn me that the chef liked to cook the pigeon rare. I was expecting something quite bloody, and when I pointed out that the breast meat was only a delicate pink, poor Dino seemed racked with guilt and took every opportunity to apologise for his slight exaggeration. Dino could not have been more charming, nor more attentive in a thoroughly discreet manner. When I picked up the legs of the bird to get the last tasty pieces of meat, suddenly a finger bowl and napkin were at my side without my even noticing - that's brilliant service.

While all this lip smacking and ooh-ing and ah-ing was going on there was another plot unfolding. I nearly said sub-plot, but that would do sufficient justice neither to Christian Bucci's wine list, nor to his careful choice of wines by the glass to go with each dish we sampled. It would be tedious to list every one of the nine or ten wines we tried. Highlights for me were the reductive but characterful white Ageno La Soppa, whose vivid amber colour heralded a perfumed nose which belied the strong tannic grip that probably comes from the best part of a month of skin contact. It went marvellously with my pigeon. 

Christian's red choice was Finisterre, a syrah from Alicante which was deep and dark with gobs of rich berry fruit. This wine partnered a wonderful selection of Italian cheeses. I had requested just a single morsel of cheese to go with the Finisterre, but Dino wasn't to be palmed off like that. He is justifiably proud of his  cheese board, and described each one as if it were an old friend. The desserts were very good too, and with a huge flourish, Christian brought out his piece de resistance, a smidgen of the amazing 46 year old dessert wine from the Cantine Ferrari in Puglia.

The restaurant didn't know it, but it was my birthday, and I couldn't imagine a more enjoyable and memorable meal to celebrate it. This is a restaurant I could never return to often enough.

Clifford Mould October 2005  

Giardinetto, 39/40 Albemarle Street, (just off Piccadilly) London W1S 4TE
Dine Online Accolade: Favourite Italian Restaurant 2005

Tel: 0207 493 7091 Open every day

Lunch: £22.00 for three courses
A la carte: Antipasti £7.50 - £12.50; Primi £11.00 - £14.00; Mains: £18.00 - £25.00, Dolci £6.50

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