While good Italian food was hardly unheard of in London – or even much of a rarity – it’s fair to say the quality and number of restaurants willing to put the time and effort (and space) into handmade pasta has shot up in the recent past. The biggest and most obvious recent influencer in this area is the wild success of Borough Market joint Padella, where a plate of glorious pici cacio & pepe is £6 and where the wait for a spot at their marbled bars regularly runs into hours.
But perhaps the real prime mover, in the Italian food renaissance in the UK generally and pasta in particular, was the opening of the River Café back in the 1980s. Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray’s grand perch on the banks of the Thames in Hammersmith changed everything about how the British saw Italian food; out went lasagna and macaroni cheese and chicken pasta bake (shudder) and in came creamy burrata drizzled in olive oil, plates of expertly-selected beef carpaccio, and – of course – wonderful freshly made pasta: ricotta ravioli with sage butter, crab linguine, veal ragu tagliatelle. These dishes may seem familiar to us now, after they began appearing on menus up and down the country, but thirty years ago they were genuinely revolutionary.
It’s no surprise, then, that along with Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Theo Randall, Sam Clark of Moro and Jordan Frieda of Trullo (and Padella), the man behind Pastaio, Stevie Parle, spent his formative years in the River Café. And as befits the name of his new restaurant (Pastaio means “pasta maker”), front and centre stage is some of the best handmade pasta we’ve tried, kneaded, pressed and extruded daily on custom-build wooden worktops that fold neatly flat against the wall when it’s time for service.
It’s a shame, then, that with one or two notable exceptions, the delivery of said wonderful fresh pasta does little to flatter it. But let’s start with the good news. A plate of mixed Italian ham, including lovely soft mortadella and pepper-studded salami, is a very reasonable £8 for quite a bit of the good stuff, and the house pickles were great.
Clams cooked in butter and Grillo (an Italian white wine) was excellent on our first visit, the seafood zingingly fresh, the broth sharp and rich and perfect soaked up by the supplied Coombeshead Farm sourdough. Weirdly, though, a couple of weeks later, the clams had been joined by mussels, the broth had lost its citrus zing, and the bread was now inedibly rock-hard stale and buried beneath the seafood. We applaud their desire to have as little waste as possible, but this really wasn’t an improvement.
But you’ll be wanting to hear about the pasta. Let’s start with the biggest disappointment, the Pastaio version of cacio e pepe, which was so unlike the dreamy, indulgent version at Padella it hardly deserved the same name. Missing that famous gently emulsified cheese/butter sauce, not to mention the punch of black pepper – in fact missing much in the way of flavour at all – this was little more than a plate of lightly buttered (admittedly very good quality) pasta, undressed and unloved.
Better was crab and tomato, made with an interesting dark-coloured frilly pasta, which held the seafood very well. We were delighted to find a good amount of brown meat on offer, and as before the pasta itself was impeccably made. However, it desperately needed some citrus and seasoning to lift it, and as such was only just about enjoyable.
Fortunately, Pastaio had one final trick up its sleeve, and good God what a trick. Having fallen completely in love with it on our first visit it’s a delight (not to mention somewhat of a relief) that the ‘grouse, rabbit and pork agnoli’ was still completely scene-stealing on a return trip: a perfect match of silky-soft sheets of fresh pasta, a rich game-y filling heady with herbs, and a butter-sage dressing to bind it all together. Conceived, built and executed perfectly, it’s right up there with the very finest pasta dishes in London (and I include the River Café in that assessment) and worth anyone’s time and money. How could they get the cacio e pepe so wrong, and this so, so utterly right?
Who knows. All we can suggest is making sure your every trip to Pastaio includes a portion of the game agnoli, and you won’t leave disappointed. That they are capable of producing at least one knockout dish suggests that some of the issues with the other dishes (and the desserts, neither of which we’d order again) stand at least a chance of being temporary, and that over the coming months a bit of extra attention to seasoning and saucing will produce some other classics. Meantime, have a carafe of Fruilano, a plate of ham and get stuck into the game agnoli, a dish so good we forgive all else.
JOL was invited to review Pastaio on a complimentary basis. We retain full editorial control.