There’s been a lot of excitement about Al Boccon di’Vino around my local area of Richmond upon Thames for some time; indeed, word is spreading and my son Jonathan said even people in his London Bridge office were talking about this Venetian restaurant in South West London. I guess, therefore, it wasn’t surprising that it took three months for us to get a table on a Saturday evening.
The problem with high expectations is that they are all too easily dashed. And it might have been either fortuitous or unfortunate that I was sitting in real Venetian restaurants only a week ago, enjoying some fabulous food, which perhaps only increased my expectations.
The concept behind Al Boccon di’Vino is one found in many restaurants in Italy: you turn up and pay a set price (in this case £40 a head) and food just comes – and there are usually lots of courses, particularly lots of dishes of antipasti. There is no menu. The chef cooks both what’s available in the markets and what he/she wants to cook. Jonathan said last night that a friend had gone along a few times when Al Boccon di’Vino first opened and they did have a menu, but it was common for what you ordered not to be the same as what arrived on your plate – because the chef didn’t fancy cooking that that day. This kind of eccentricity can be appealing (if you’re resistant to just being plain annoyed), but it needs to be backed up with the goods, i.e. excellent cooking.
Al Boccon di’Vino is a small place and tables for a maximum of 34 covers are squashed into it. There are some rather weird wall decorations, including a large picture of Michelangelo’s David with a far larger sexual organ than will be found on the sculpture itself! The walls are lined with bottles of wine – indeed the restaurant claims to be a enoteca – wine bar – although as we sat down we were told there was just house wine and did we want red or white (at least that’s what Lyndsey and I thought they said; Jonathan thought they asked did we want house or special wine – but certainly no wine list was offered). Having eaten at a well-known restaurant in Venice, Corte Sconta, in its early days (and in my opinion better days; my fourth and last visit in 2008 was a big disappointment), where there was also no menu and not even a choice of red or white – an unlabelled white was put in front of you and that was it (fortunately it was also very good) – I wasn’t fazed by no choice of wine. A good restaurant should always serve good house wine.
We’d barely sat down and food started coming. A plate of freshly carved salame – we could see them cutting this and the prosciutto that came later behind the bar area straight onto plates, so it couldn’t have been any fresher. A ‘typical Venetian soup’ was then put before us – a cross between a ribolitta and a minestrone. It was ideal to warm us up as we came in from the unseasonably cold weather outside and very good. Then there was a little plate of grilled vegetables – courgettes, aubergine, red pepper, which were also delicious.
Food was coming at quite a fast rate; we decided we should pace ourselves but we were definitely being hurried a bit. When my son said he wanted to finish what was on his plate at one point, the waiter said he should eat up quickly and continued to take plates. We decided to laugh at this further sign of eccentricity … but not everyone would.
The fresh artichokes were lovely, reminding me of the proliferation of these purple-green jewels that I saw in the wonderful Rialto market last week. The asparagus was slightly overdone and if I were to have eggs with it, I would have preferred softly boiled or poached rather than cold hard boiled.
When some fish courses came, Jonathan reminded them that he’d said when he’d booked that he doesn’t eat fish and they were unfazed and happily went off and came back with a plate in which the fish had been replaced by other things. Very good. However, the ‘no fish’ somehow turned into ‘no fish or meat’ in their heads so when the – very good – beef carpaccio was put in front of Lyndsey and me, Jonathan found himself with a plate of courgette carpaccio. I have to say, the mistake was worth it to see Jonathan’s face. Beef carpaccio is one of his favourite things. However, again, the waiter happily went off and quickly came back with another beef version. These plates of antipasti were good, but not excellent: the prawns a little insipid; the scallops overdone and therefore chewy.
The rather too hurried start to the meal had slowed down by now and there were – thankfully – longer gaps between the courses. The two little pasta dishes, one filled with tomato and mozzarella and the other filled with some delicious porcini mushroom duxelle were tasty, but slightly underdone. I know my al dente but there was really just a bit too much bite left in these.
There was suddenly a lot of excitement in the restaurant, quiet was called and the manager announced ‘the main course’ – a huge dish filled with a whole roasted suckling pig that was taken around the room for everyone to see before it was carved. We realised now that the timing was all about everyone coming to the point of being ready for their main course at the same time. This did all add a nice community feel to the meal – a moment of everyone coming together. While I’d realised we were all eating the same thing in the full restaurant, I hadn’t realised we were eating together. Large plates of the pork were distributed to each table with some potatoes.
I have to confess I’m not a great pork fan – apart from prosciutto and bacon – but my two companions liked it and the whole little operatic event caused a happy and excited atmosphere to spark, adding to the convivial atmosphere.
The meal was almost at its end and a plate of three little desserts followed: tiramisu, pannacotta and some strawberry compote.
I’m a bit of a tiramisu snob and didn’t think much of this one; the pannacotta had a nice consistency but was a little too sweet. Coffee or tea followed and we were offered either limoncello or grappa with it. By the time we were asking for the bill – one of the first tables to do so – it was nearly 11 pm. We’d been there for three and a half hours. But then I’d photographed 14 plates of food, and it has to take a while to get through all that!
When the bill came we were slightly taken aback. We knew the food menu was £40 a head but had heard the wine was cheap. It turned out the house wine was £25 a bottle and as we’d had two, that added £50 to the bill. I said I suppose we should have asked, but Jonathan pointed out, fairly I think, that in a restaurant with no menu or wine list which you know is going to be a reasonably expensive meal, it seems a little strange to ‘check’ the price of the house wine. However, £25 isn’t cheap for a bottle of house wine and if you are going to spend that much, then I think you have a right to expect some choice in what you have – choice that goes beyond merely red or white. The total bill was £170 for the three of us before tip.
So. Did Al Boccon di’Vino live up to all the hype? Well, you’ve probably gathered by now that for us, no, not really. We had a fun evening – the atmosphere was lively, the service – apart from the odd eccentricity – was friendly and efficient. There was definitely a nice sense of the staff taking great pride in what they did and the food they produced. We liked this little taste of Italy that reminded us of restaurants in Italy we’d been to where there was no menu and what a good experience that can be. We could see that for a group of people it could be a fun place to go – no hassles about ordering food and sorting out who’s paying what. But it did cost a lot. And thus one can’t help comparing it to other places where you could get much better food for the same price. Al Boccon di’Vino is streaks ahead of all the chains that abound in Richmond, for all the food is freshly cooked and prepared, and there is a pleasing individuality that’s absent from the chains. But it’s good trattoria cooking; it’s not fine ristorante dining. And maybe that doesn’t matter if you want the different and rather theatrical experience and some good Italian food. But for us three, we were completed united in the thought that while we would go back, we wouldn’t be rushing back, and when it comes to great Italian food, there is nowhere in Richmond that beats the lovely A Cena for us.