The best things in life often come in small packages, I’ve found. I could come over all girlie on you and talk of diamonds and exquisite dark chocolate truffles. But my kind of thing is what I found at Bocca di Lupo today: glorious small plates of the most wonderful Italian food, followed by the best ice cream I’ve ever had outside Italy – maybe even in Italy! – at Gelupo (their gelateria opposite the restaurant).
I’m in pre-holiday mode. I’ve finished all the work I had to do before setting off to visit my good friends Linda and George in Spain next week, but with the sun beating down on London today, the sky a deep azure blue with barely a cloud in sight, it was oh so tempting to make the most of living in one of the best and most exciting cities in the world and have an ‘outing’. It’s easy to take where you live for granted. I’m a true Londoner: I was born here and have always lived here. I’m not particularly nationalistic. I think I’m fortunate to have been born in the UK but I don’t see it’s something to be proud of. Yet my feelings for London run deep and I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
My plan was to visit the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art and maybe pick up a snack lunch before heading home. Then I remembered that my lovely and very patient Italian teacher, Fabio, has often told me that Gelupo sell the best ice cream in London and I should go there sometime. Knowing it was just off Piccadilly Circus, and therefore near the Royal Academy, I thought maybe I’d have an ice cream for lunch!
The Summer Exhibition is special because unlike other major art exhibitions you can actually buy most of the artworks on show. I think there’s often a difference between a painting one admires greatly but maybe couldn’t live with and another you’d just love to have hanging in your home. With 1,262 artworks to look at, I went with a buyer’s eye for fun – even though there wasn’t much chance of my actually buying one! – and focused on the ones that caught my eye and I felt I could live with. In fact, some pieces start at prices not much above £100 but my real love of the day was a wonderful Barbara Rae painting at £58,000. That was definitely out of my price range! However, I loved seeing the painting and other works so came out into the bright sunshine outside in a happy mood, all set for a great ice cream. It’s barely a 5-minute walk to Archer Street and Gelupo … but then, as I walked along the road, I saw Bocca di Lupo. Of course, I thought! I’d forgotten they were almost together and temptation took me across the road to look at the menu. How could I resist? Some lunch there before ice cream would be perfect. They found me a seat the bar and that turned out to be perfect too; I loved being up close to all the food preparation and close to where the finished dishes were being passed to the waiting staff to go to tables.
The service was immediately brilliant. The very helpful Sian (as I later learnt her name was) brought me a basket of bread and some olives while I looked at the menu and she asked if I’d like something to drink.
Sian brought me a carafe of water and when I asked for a glass of prosecco she suggested I might like the more special Franciacorta Brut Berlucchi for a little more money; she told me it was wonderful and more like champagne. I’m never sure that anything that isn’t real champagne is really like champagne but decided to go with the suggestion; she hadn’t been pushy about it and it seemed a nice thing to do to take up the recommendation. And really, it was more like champagne, and very delicious.
And then there was the bread: the bread was amazing, so good. There was some really excellent focaccia and some wonderful sourdough bread, plus some delicious olives. I was asked if I wanted the two dishes I’d ordered to come separately or together. I said just as they were ready was fine. But it was great to be asked; I heard the same question being given to the people sitting next to me a bit later: how did they want their dishes to come. I’d guessed that a couple of small plates would be enough for lunch. It had been quite difficult to choose as everything sounded so good and tempting but I’d finally opted for Sea Bream Carpaccio with Orange & Rosemary and some Caponata. I was also asked if I wanted the caponata with anchovies on top or without. This attention to detail and making sure you got just what you wanted was impressive.
The sea bream when it came looked fantastic. It tasted fantastic too. Sea bream is one of my favourite fish but served like this it has a wonderful delicacy of flavour. The thin layers of fish were perfectly dressed with a tasty but not overpowering dressing. It was gorgeous. I ate this first, by itself. It seemed the right thing to do once I got started and to save the more robust-flavoured caponata to have after.
I love caponata and I guess the little blogger in me partly chose it to see just how good Bocca di Lupo’s caponata would be. The answer to that was that it was one of the best – if not the best – caponatas I’ve ever had. Owners Jacob Kennedy and Victor Hugo talk of their ‘honest regional Italian cuisine’ and there really was something so Italian about it; the real thing. It reminded me of Giorgio Locatelli making it on the wonderful Sicily Unpacked programme: good chunks of vegetables not tiny cubes. This was hearty, good honest food but so elegant too. The flavours were fantastic; each vegetable cooked to its own perfection. I’ve never given ratings on my restaurant reviews, but if I did, this caponata would be 10/10.
There was a nice buzz to the restaurant and I felt very relaxed. I loved my bar seat and watching all the other dishes coming through: silky looking risottos, suppli, courgette flowers deep fried and filled with mozzarella and anchovy, this plate of cold meats:
I’ll just have to go back soon – with other people, so we can choose lots of plates to share! It was very tempting to stay at the bar and have my ice cream there but it seemed a shame not to cross the road and go where I’d originally intended: Gelupo! I ordered an espresso and asked for my bill.
Leaving Bocca di Lupo I just had to cross the road to Gelupo.
There was a small queue inside. It was interesting to see the choice of flavours was quite small. Not that that was a problem; I could have eaten any of them. Having just eaten a good lunch I decided to have a small cup of ice cream (£3) – but you can choose two flavours. I chose Saffron & Vanilla and Pistachio.
The flavour of each was wonderful. The saffron was deep and rich in flavour but perfectly balanced; the pistachio a rich, buttery nuttiness that comes from a good pistachio. The ice cream was smooth, creamy and as fantastic as Fabio had promised. In fact, the whole Bocca di Lupo experience had been as fantastic as I’d hoped. It has collected many awards and great reviews since its opening in 2008 and I guess this blogger and Italophile has been a bit slow off the mark to get there. But I’m so glad I finally made it – and that it lived up to expectations. Indeed, it surpassed expectations and I plan to go back there as soon as I can to try more of their fabulous food!