A recent article comparing life in London to that elsewhere in the country made a point of marvelling at the seeming willingness of its inhabitants to queue like a conga line of hungry lemmings at new restaurants and I was reminded of this as I stood, lemming-ing it up with the best of them, outside Padella last night.
Getting there at 6.15pm on a Thursday night when the air was flush with the warmth of spring and the mood of fellow work escapees was high meant there was a good chance the queue would be long and the wait snoozy; fifteen minutes later however and we were in, welcomed by friendly staff who appear to have been plucked straight from the known-only-to-locals, backstreet-cobbled-alleyway, restaurant gems of Milan and deposited in the balmy shadow of Southwark cathedral.
Billed as the result of a decade long love affair with Italy’s most recognised & adored dish, Padella is descended from the glorious lineage of Trullo, an Italian institution in Highbury where it’s totally reasonable to envy the people lucky enough to call it their local. Whereas Trullo offers dishes from the oven & the charcoal blistered grill alongside other plates however, Padella is about one thing – soft, silky, slippery, saucey pasta.
The menu is small, the first thing in Padella’s favour before insatiable thoughts of eggy twirls of pasta had even entered my mind. Small menus mean quality ingredients and dishes made with love and expertise. Make no mistake, those two things are equally important; you want the love of the food to come through in its flavour & presentation but you also need to know that your chef knows what they’re doing – beautiful ingredients can easily be annihilated by nervous or disrespectful hands. Small menus convey a confidence that the restaurant knows exactly what it’s trying to give you; there’s no confusion over whether it’s this experience or that experience or being so baffled by their own fusion menu that they no longer know what they’re offering up to the hapless, confused & increasingly irritated diner.
The second thing that makes me quietly applaud the good folks behind Padella is the size of the portions. Italian restaurants can be notorious for dumping enough cheap pasta on your plate to make even the most zealous carb lover start to sweat. Here’s what I don’t want – I don’t want my dinner to be bigger than me and I don’t want the stingiest smear of tomato sauce to be spread blushingly thin across a kilo and a half of penne.
Here’s what I do want – I want a portion that doesn’t snigger behind my back with its friends as I wincingly pay over the odds for what I’m getting but instead, gently coos in my ear that it’s exactly what I’ve been waiting for all day as it is presented to me. This my friends, is what you get here. Portions that are small enough to allow the enjoyment of 3 courses but generous enough to ensure you won’t need to scrape for week old oatcake crumbs at the bottom of your handbag on the tube home. Don’t deny it, we all know it happens, there’s no judgement from me.
Three slender slices of sourdough were light, airy and gorgeous when
lightly dribbled, utterly soaked by my heavy hand with Tuscan olive oil and a sprinkling of rock salt. I’m totally ok with the fact that I’m rapidly becoming a bit of a rock salt monster lately; I love the flavour, I love the crunch and god, I literally want to dust it over everything like some sort of high-on-sodium-chloride Tinkerbell. A comforting ball of burrata sat plumply in a golden puddle of olive oil, its creamy insides spilling onto my plate, atop my bread and into my mouth. I’ll say no more on the matter but you will feel my silent judgement if, upon dining here, you fail to order this.
I’d already heard rapturous reviews of the pappardelle with 8 hour Dexter beef shin ragu – I mean come ON, that’s just a blanket, a sofa & a log fire of a comfort food dish – but tagliolini spiked with nduja & parsley waved coquettishly at me from the menu and after a few flirty bats of the eyelash, I was in. Glossy and daubed with the colours of a Roman sunset, it was excellent; spicy with gentle fire, dotted with emerald flecks and speckled with tiny strands of nutty Parmesan, this was a vibrant pasta bowl full of life and it was eaten greedily and slurpily as the very best pasta should be.
Swiping a fat strand of ragu slick pasta from my friend’s plate confirmed that it was exceptionally good, the melting & meaty mouthful whisking me out of the hustle of London and into a Tuscan farmhouse where a shared dinner around a scarred wooden table stained with generations of oil & wine made me one of the family.
An appreciatively normal sized wedge of chocolate tart was sleek & velvety, each spoonful sinking onto my tongue where it dissolved in a toe-curling puddle of pleasure. Now I’m not saying Pizza East’s salted chocolate tart – unarguably one of London’s finest puddings – needs to worry but…well actually, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Don’t rest on your albeit delicious laurels chaps because this tart is a beauty and the accompanying dollop of crème fraiche cut through the sweetness, making it everything it should be; rich, decadent & lusciously wanton.
Both the packed ground floor & basement dining rooms are small and marble clad with tables close to each other – am I the only person genuinely afraid of setting innocent fellow diners on fire as I squeeze past them, only to drop with nervous relief onto my seat then realise I need to visit the ladies?! I’m a sucker for bar-stool dining though – I worship at the altar of anything that feels datey, casual and intimate all at once – so I’m pinning my hopes on bagging one of those seats when the time comes for my return visit.
Because of course there’s going to be a return visit. When you find a place whose owners really want you to love the Italy they love, whose prices won’t leave you as anxious as an avocado tree near a hipster hangout and whose portions won’t have you wake the next morning with that feeling of sorrow, regret and head-hanging gluttony, well, that’s the kind of place I’m happy to get back in line for. Lemmings, assume the position.