I love the Bloomsbury area of London. It’s the literary romantic in me. Just as I like to think of Sartre and Hemingway when sitting in a Parisian cafe, walking through Bloomsbury will make me think of Virginia Woolf, the artist Vanessa Bell, and all those other writers, artists, philosophers and intellectuals who made up the Bloomsbury Set during the first part of the 20th century. And, of course, it’s a very fitting location for two book publishers to get together for an evening meal. Chris told me she and Ivor had discovered this little Italian restaurant recently, right near the British Museum in Bury Place, and suggested it might be a good place for us to meet.
As I parked my car in Russell Square and walked down Montague Street in the fading light of a now rather blustery September evening, past the British Museum to my right and into Great Russell Street, a little part of me deep inside said the familiar mantra that comes into my head whenever I’m here that, well, I could sell up and come and buy a flat in one of the gorgeous Georgian houses and how exciting that would be. Maybe it’s the visceral pull that comes from having actually lived quite close to the area as a baby, for I spent the first two years of my life living in Charing Cross Road. There’s a slightly faded elegance to Bloomsbury now and it is very touristy, but with its leafy streets and exquisitely beautiful architecture it retains its own special feel of a bygone era and an influential group who believed in the importance of art.
Il Castelletto sits on the corner of Bury Street and Gilbert Place, just off Great Russell Street, the British Museum in view from the outside. Walking inside was a little like walking back in time and one could imagine that walking in during the sixties or seventies, it would have felt just the same: a very traditional Italian trattoria. But there was also an authentic Italian feel to it with its wooden interior, red tablecloths and simple decor that reminded me of trattorias off the tourists routes of Rome, tucked away in some small quiet street. And certainly the people sitting inside looked as if they were as likely to be locals as visitors.
The menu was also very traditional with dishes like Insalata Caprese, Insalata Tricolore and even prawn cocktail (though whether that’s traditional Italian or traditional English trattoria, I’m not sure!). There was a good choice of pastas but also meat dishes like Saltimbocca alla Romana and Fegato alla Veneziana, and fish. Chris and I settled on salads to start and then pasta.
My Insalata Caprese came with bottles of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar so I could dress it myself, which I actually like because then I get just the right amount of dressing for me. It was nice and fresh: not the tastiest mozzarella but definitely of the buffalo variety. There was quite a good choice of half bottles of wine, which suited us as neither of us wanted to drink a lot and we chose some Chianti Classico at £10.95 for the half bottle and it was good.
Next up, Chris had Spaghetti Carbonara and I chose Penne Amatriciana – a dish I like a lot and seemed to suit the fast deteriorating weather outside.
It’s a simple dish – as all the best pasta dishes are – with a sauce consisting of tomatoes, bacon, onions and chilli. Getting it right is all about the balance of the sweet acidity of the tomatoes, the saltiness of the bacon and a slightly fiery bite of chilli with the sauce thick enough to cling nicely to the chosen pasta shape. Il Castelletto’s was very good and I enjoyed it a lot. Chris liked her Carbonara too but couldn’t finish the huge portion. Just after she’d ordered it she remembered she’d had pasta the night before in a well-known chain restaurant and that it had been awful: was pasta a good choice again? It turned out it was and Il Castellatto’s was infinitely superior.
I, in Italian mood, couldn’t resist an espresso at the end while Chris wisely chose to not risk a sleepless night. We talked on till 10ish – two and a half hours after entering the restaurant. It was such a pleasant, friendly and cosy place to sit. Chris’s Tastecard got us a discount but even without that, the meal with wine, coffee and service would have come to just under £20 a head, which was very good value. Il Castelletto is all about simple, good trattoria cooking. It’s not worth a special trip across London just to eat there but whenever I’m in the Bloomsbury area again, it’s definitely a place I’ll go back to.