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The Neal Street Restaurant

Antonio Carluccio's flagship restaurant celebrates Italy's diversity of regional styles

We've often featured announcements of Carluccio's special gourmet events, particularly when the truffle season gets into gear. Antonio is a passionate hunter gatherer, be it fin, feather, fur or fungus. Indeed, he has collected recipes that celebrate nature's bounty into a wonderful book called Antonio Goes Wild. No fungal forager or truffle tracker should be without it. An essential piece of kit for the hunter gatherer is a good stick for poking and prodding. It should have a forked top to give a good grip, and often the stick itself is decorated with whittled patterns. Antonio's restaurant in Neal Street is decorated with collections of such sticks, all hand carved by the maestro himself. As a keen game hunter myself, I covet one of these sticks like anything, so watch out Antonio, I'm about to stage a truffle stick raid!

As you enter the restaurant there's a display of fresh fungal species, but tempting though they were, we were there for a specific purpose: to sample the delights of the latest in Antonio's series of Italian Regional Lunch Menus.  This month it's been the cooking of Fruili that has provided Head Chef Andrea Cavaliere with both inspiration and a few challenges. I brought along my Drexel University culinary class to show them what real Italian cooking can be like.

If Puglia is Italy's heel, Friuli is its armpit. Tucked away to the North East of Venice, parts of the region have often changed national ownership, sometimes Italian, occasionally Austro-Hungarian, sometimes Slovenian. No wonder the Fruilians feel a little apart from the rest of Italy. Living on such a political and cultural crossroads, it comes as no surprise that their culinary heritage is eclectic: they had fusion cuisine long before the likes of Jean-Georges Vongerichten hit the scene.

A good illustration of such fusion came in a my main course: Gulyas di Pesce alla Triestina con coch di Pane. The spicy paprika flavoured goulash derives from Slovenia and Hungary, while the dumpling-like bread is reminiscent of Viennese Knoedlen, and at the heart of it, the stewed fish for which the Adriatic seaport of Trieste is famous. Monkfish and skate made this dish a memorable experience. Austrian Knoedlen, or dumplings, found their way into the Fruilian repertory as gnocchi

Nose to tail eating is what the Fruilians do to pigs - nothing is wasted. Tasty sausages found their way into a hearty peasant soup called Jota, together with beans and shredded Savoy cabbage. They were also present to give substance to  a crunchy textured risotto, flavoured with the smoked ricotta for which the region is also famous.  I loved the brilliant yellow ravioli, the marvellous home made pasta filled with a purée of pumpkins and more of the smoked ricotta cheese.

If you go up into the hills behind Trieste chasing after young rabbits, you have to be careful not to stray over the border into Slovenia. If you do, you have to be even more careful not to disturb the famous Lippizaner horses of the Lipica stud, only a few miles away. The rabbits we enjoyed were prepared in a meticulous fashion by Andrea and his brigade. The best meat of the saddle was  filled with a mushroom and herb stuffing, then rolled in Friulian ham from San Daniele and finally an outer layer of  Savoy cabbage leaf which had become quite crisp.

Grappa is the spirit of the region, and a brûlée made with prunes and grappa was so popular that day that I missed out! But the Viennese influence reappeared with a strudel. We enjoyed some excellent desserts from the main menu, including some intensely flavoured passion fruit sorbet, a delicious apple and amaretto tart and, perhaps best of all, at least for lovers of chocolate, the dark orangey richness of Torta di Gianduja all' arancio .

This lunch at £21 for two courses or £25 for three is really great value. Unlike many lunch deals where you get small portions of cheap food, these dishes are all featured on the current a la carte menu. Unfortunately, the Fruilian wines on offer were a little beyond our budget, starting as they did from £24 and rapidly accelerating to £36 and upwards. But they all come from carefully selected private estates like Vinnaoli Jermann and Borgo San Danieli and there are plenty of more affordable wines on the main list.

Clifford Mould, March 2004

Main a la carte menu prices: Antipasti and pasta £7.00 - £12.50  Main dishes: £14.50 - £24.00 Desserts: £5.50 - £9.00

Future regional expeditions for 2004 will feature Liguria in May, Sardegna in July and Piedmont  in October

The Neal Street Restaurant, 26 Neal Street
Covent Garden, London WC2
Reservations: 020 7836 8368

See also our reviews of Carluccio's Caffés

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