Every now and again you come across a restaurant that defies categorization. A concept so avant-garde that it either disappears without trace or goes on to define its category. Macellaio may do the latter.
It bases the menu around two ingredients ― Fassone Piedmontese Beef and Sicilian Red Tuna (Tonno Rosso). Each is offered in multiple appetizer and main course preparations with other ingredients playing a distinctly minor, supporting role. Fassone Piedmontese is a specific breed of cattle that produces large amounts of exceptionally succulent meat due to the animal having congenital muscular hypertrophy (exceptionally large muscles). This reduces the required connective tissue making for tender meat.
Traditionally, the animals served the triple role of drawing, milk, and meat in Piedmont but nowadays the latter two are the main uses (many of the cheeses of the region use the milk). The meat is revered in Italy but little known outside.
Sicilian tuna is better known internationally as an exceptional example of one of the most versatile eating fish (they are the reputed reason that occasionally Great White sharks detoured from their homes deep in the Atlantic for the confines of the Mediterranean Sea. Can a dozen Great White Shark all be wrong?).
Macellaio splits its menu into halves. One for fish, one for meat. Each has a section for small bites (cicchetti), grilled appetizer selections (tagliate), a raw section (‘pure and simple’), and a weight-based main course section. Adornments to each preparation are minimal, so the small pasta and sides sections may be welcomed by some visitors who want more variety on their plate. Desserts are just six strong, and of the Tiramisu ambition level.
We hit the cicchetti for bruschetta with lardo (£4) a beef presentation made even more alluring by the layer of fat. Beef tongue with parsley salsa (£5) was intense and earthy and stood on its own strengths as an appetizer. But be aware that tongue does not readily show off the Piedmontese beef’s unique characteristics. In a sense ‘tongue is tongue’. Our bad.
On the right-hand side of the menu, tuna bresaola (£3.50) is an authentic rendition of the popular beef cure, just implemented with tuna. Even better was tuna and chicory (£4.50) which marinated the tuna in olive oil with mustard and white chicory. This had the right mélange of flavors, aromas, temperatures, and textures to whet the appetite of the hungry diner. Most impressive was a tagliate of tuna with strawberries and Modena balsamico. So simple, yet so delicious. Of course, carpaccio, raw tuna and beef, are menu items in their own right.
We chose 400g of beef (£22) for our main course and it arrived sizzling roasted and sliced on a cast iron plate. Seasoned with salt and served with a side of spinach it was a heart-warming pleasure on a cold night. The beef is dry-aged (ask your server the exact number of days) with concentrated umami flavors and a long finish. The spinach was just sautéed to tenderness.
The imbibing choices are a page of reds and a page of whites on a separate pocket-sized list where (virtually) all are available by the glass, carafe, or bottle. The all-Italian selection does a good job of showcasing Italy’s vast selection of indigenous white grape varieties (they are so much less well-known than the reds). It is a lesson in ‘learning your V’s’ with Vermentino, Vernaccia, and Verdicchio all represented.
We settled on Il Torchio Vermentino (£7.50/g) from Liguria and Accadia Verdicchio Dei Castelli Di Jesi (£6.50/g) from the Marche to pair with the tuna, and each rewarded us with bright acidity, rich mouthfeel, and varietal distinction. A 2014 Rosso Del Vulcano (£6.50/g) from the Cantina Del Notaio, made from one of Italy’s most underrated red grapes, Aglianico, was a sturdy companion to the beef. As a fitting end to the meal, a glass of grappa (£5) left me feeling warm and mellow in preparation for the walk home.
Service is by what appeared to be an all-Italian crew who are encouraged to present themselves in an all-Italian style from the enthusiastic waitress to the suited manager and the focused, full-whites cooks. On the Sunday evening that we visited the place was packed by 7:30 p.m.
Macellaio first opened in South Kensington. Exmouth Market is the first of what founder, Roberto Costa, plans to be an indeterminate-sized expansion. Its distinctiveness and difficulty to categorize mean that it will be practically confined to places where novelty and experimentation are popular. However, those neighborhoods will find themselves richly rewarded by good cooking, oodles of authenticity, and a warm welcome. Two ingredients make one-of-a-kind.
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