I first went to Caffe Caldesi one morning last November to interview Katie Caldesi for my Top Ten Cookery Books Series and immediately loved this ‘little corner of Italy in the heart of Marylebone’, as the Caldesis describe their restaurant. This part of London is a vibrant hub of activity, full of lovely shops, restaurants and cafes and parking almost right outside the Caffe’s doors last night, I thought, What a great place this is to be, and Caffe Caldesi was a warm and welcoming sight that drew you into its doors.
The Caffe is divided into two parts: a restaurant upstairs with its own menu and a bar downstairs with a more informal bar menu – and this is the one Annie and I went for. You can’t book a table in the bar area for less than five people but I’d been told that I should have no problem getting a table for two at 7pm; that it was after 8 that it got really busy. And indeed, when I walked in, although there were quite a few tables taken there was plenty of room. The welcome was as warm and friendly as the glowing front of the Caffe promised and the waiter asked where I wanted to sit, but then suggested there was a very nice table towards the back. And it was an excellent table and I’m going to head straight back to it next time I go.
Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi opened the Caffe in 2002 to showcase Italy’s regional cooking and great wines. Nearby is La Cucina Caldesi, the only Italian cookery school in central London where Katie and Giancarlo do much of the teaching themselves but also have well-known chefs like Valentina Harris and Sophie Grigson as visiting tutors. I recently went to their ‘country outpost’ – Caldesi in Campagna – and after the gorgeous meal there was definitely looking forward to my meal last night.
The Caffe’s menu reflects Giancarlo’s Tuscan roots and it tells you that he was brought up on a smallholding where his mother cooked meals using fresh seasonal ingredients in a way that maximised their flavour and retained the nutrients – Cucina Povera. This, to me, is the essence of Italian cooking and why I like it so much – that wonderful respect for the ingredients and often cooking things in a simple way but bringing out the best flavour.
My starter couldn’t have been simpler or fresher in that it was a salad – L’insalata Invernale (winter salad) – but it’s the skill of the chef combining ingredients and seasonings that turns ‘ordinary’ ingredients into something spectacular. The Pear, Apple and Endive Salad with Roasted Pine Nuts, Pecorino and Honey Dressing was wonderful. Annie said it looked very healthy and indeed, it probably was! But my choice had been guided not by thoughts of health (I invariably leave worries about being healthy behind when I enter the doors of a lovely restaurant – I’m there to enjoy myself), but because it sounded so good. It looked beautiful too, everything put together enticingly, and was as fresh as could be: crisp endive and ripe fruit, the lovely nutty roasted pine nuts, the slightly tangy Pecorino and the sweet warmth of the honey dressing. Annie meanwhile was tucking in to a magnificent Fritto Misto of deep-fried calamari, whitebait and courgettes. Laid out on a wooden platter it looked fabulous and when she let me try some, it tasted good too!
We both opted for pasta as main courses, although there were some good-sounding mains like Beef Stew with Black Peppercorns, Tomato Sauce and Soft Polenta; cod with a lentil stew, a Tagliata Caldesi and a Milanese style veal chop. I opted for I Rigatoni al Ragu – rigatoni pasta with a Tuscan pork and beef ragu, which was deeply rich and cooked down to that perfect consistency that wraps itself round the pasta. Annie had Le Penne alla Norma – penne pasta with crispy aubergine, tomato sauce and grated salted ricotta. She said the aubergine wasn’t actually crispy but tasted very good, as did the whole dish.
It wasn’t so many days ago I was saying – hopefully not too piously! – that I rarely ate puddings these days. But I’m obviously spending too much time hanging out in lovely restaurants where I can’t resist them. But how could one resist trying a Warm Chocolate Mousse with Butter Biscuits? Tell me – could you? I’m very glad I didn’t. It was wonderful. A perfect-sized portion served in a little espresso cup with fingers of crisp, buttery little biscuits. The consistency somewhere between a mousse and a rich chocolate pot but all warm and lovely.
And the bill for all this, including two glasses of excellent Col di Sasso Banfi Sangiovese/Cabernet Sauvignon, one coffee and one mint tea, including service, was £65.31. Caffe Caldesi is the kind of place I love best and serves the food I love best – so I’m heading back again soon.