Courtesy of Bocca di Lupo
Courtesy of Bocca di Lupo
Our neighbouring diner says to the waiter, “Is it always this busy? I mean, this is a Monday night! What’s it like on a Friday?” This Italian regional restaurant in London’s Soho has been around long enough to become a classic but is still going strong, packed with a chattering-class crowd along its innovatory bar seating and in its buzzy, small formal dining room, under soft ‘70s-meets-Art Deco lighting.
Chef Jacob Kenedy and his business partner Victor Hugo opened Bocca di Lupo (“mouth of the wolf” in Italian) in 2008, and it’s still got it. When food is this good, people come back for more, and it’s still a delight that you can go tapas-style or stick to a more traditional starter-main course configuration. Some dishes are given regional labels to indicate provenance, while others are labelled simply “mama” or “BDL” (Bocca di Lupo).
First up is octopus salad (Sicily), which has just the right amount of tenderness, served with basil and capers. And note the basil. You can’t help it. The herb is something else here — succulent, fragrant leaves with bite — the type that grows in Italian gardens in the summer. The sea bream carpaccio with orange and rosemary looks beautiful, scattered with blood orange zest. I say it’s a little slimy, but as my Italian companion points out, “It’s fish.” Not my favourite texture, but there’s a delicious orange fragrance before the salty crunch. The fritti Romani — “fried things from Rome,” such as the classic courgette (zucchini) flower stuffed with mozzarella and anchovy — is so light that it’s nearly tempura — and surely almost healthy.
The ravioli is three big al dente parcels, containing a masterful interplay of flavors, combining wild garlic, ricotta, spinach and the hardness of scattered hazelnut. The chicken scaloppine with lemon and parsley is a “mama” recipe, and thinly sliced chicken is given a gentle aromatic citrus twang. It’s a favourite that my Italian companion cooks at home too. It’s pure comfort food. (Do Italians make anything else?)
Another wow of a dish is the caponata — we chose the version topped by anchovies, where intense tomato meets caramelly onion to make a sweet, strong flavour that’s nevertheless fresh and light.
For dessert, I order the Rum Baba, a Neapolitan sponge cake, soaked in rum and laden with cream, topped by chopped pineapple, as if I’ve time-travelled to 1970s Naples. I struggle with it, as it’s a mountain of a dish, gloriously rich and substantial — but waste not, want not, so I don’t make a bad stab at it before admitting defeat. I ask the waiter, “Has anyone ever finished a Rum Baba?” “Yes. I did last week,” he says, “with two friends.” Time to roll home, happy to conclude that this is still one of London’s best choices for a regional Italian feast.