Those of us who love Italy are always thinking of ways to bring some of it home – recipes to make in your kitchen; beautiful pottery from the Amalfi coast; glass from Murano; chocolate from Turin. Russell Norman, however, opens restaurants. First he brought Venice to London in the shape of Polpo; now he brings us Tuscany, wrapped up in the shape of a typical Tuscan trattoria and nestled in a small side street in Clerkenwell, almost out of sight, between Farringdon Road Station and the old Smithfield Market.
Brutto has been lauded with 4* and 5* reviews everywhere and so I was excited to go there. But not quite as excited as by the prospect of seeing my lovely friend Lucia again. It had been far too long … two and a half years … not just because of covid and all the disruption to life that brought, but because she’s had to spend a lot more time in Italy of late. But here we were together again at long last and it was just as it had always been. And it was Lucia who suggested we meet at Brutto – well it had to be Italian! – as she’d had some great meals there.
We met early – 6pm – so didn’t book but could only have a table until 7.30. The restaurant quickly filled up and was soon bustling with happy eaters – a really great ambiance.
In true trattoria style, the tables were covered in red and white check tablecloths; the chairs dark wood; candles dripped down the side of tall holders (though not, you will be pleased to hear, Chianti bottles in a straw basket as that would be too much of a cliché). You didn’t have to close your eyes to imagine you might be in Florence. One wonders why such an attractive place is called brutto – ugly. As for trattoria, the word stems from trattare – to treat – and denotes an informal, usually family run restaurant.
Lucia suggested we had Coccoli, prosciutto & stracchino to share as a starter. Coccoli are ‘deep-fried dough ball cuddles’ – coccoli being the word for cuddles. Stracchino is a soft cow’s milk cheese from Lombardy. Lucia doesn’t eat meat so the ham would be mine and we’d share the rest.
The dough balls were quite big and so three each as a starter would be plenty. We were warned by the waitress they were very hot. The idea is to cut them open and stuff them with the ham and cheese. They are essentially street food. I took one and split it open with a knife. Unfortunately I could see immediately that it wasn’t cooked through and the centre contained a lot of raw dough. I went ahead anyway but the problem remained with the rest of the balls and Lucia similarly had uncooked dough at the centre of hers. I didn’t have a problem eating it but neither did I get the true experience.
I chose Pappardelle con coniglio – pappardelle with rabbit- as a main course. I hadn’t eaten rabbit in years but used to cook it often and it’s a very typical Tuscan dish.
The pappardelle – long, wide ribbons of pasta – was perfectly cooked. The ragù merely ‘okay’. As a dish it was, frankly, unspectacular and lacked the ‘wow’ factor of pasta I’ve enjoyed in places like the brilliant Bancone.
Lucia was disappointed that her favourite pasta dish was no longer on the menu but it’s good to see the menu does change – presumably with what’s in season. So she chose a vegetarian dish from the ‘Secondi’ list: Zucca arrosto, borlotti e salsa verde – roasted squash with borlotti beans and green sauce.
Lucia said it was good, but again no ‘wow’ factor and not as good as the pasta dish she’d had before.
Dessert was a ‘must’. Lucia was keen to have Brutti ma buoni e gelato – meringue and hazelnut cookies with ice cream.
She encouraged me to try these sticky, hazelnut meringues, which were indeed good.
I was quite tempted by a plum and almond tart but opted instead for Tiramisu. I like it a lot but rarely eat it. As I explained to Lucia, if I make a pudding to take over to the family it wouldn’t be tiramisu with three little boys sharing it – not with the coffee and alcohol content! So being able to have it in a good Italian restaurant is a real treat for me.
It was an excellent tiramisu. And a generous portion. I felt my meal had started on a low, gone through a middling ‘okay’ and ended on a high note.
The bill was just over £78 for the two of us, including tip and a glass of Chianti for me.
So, Brutto had been a mixed experience and not quite what I’d hoped for and Lucia said it hadn’t been as good as she’d enjoyed there before. It was a great place to meet a good friend and spend time together with its lively atmosphere, and the service was friendly and efficient. But the food definitely lacked any kind of ‘wow’ factor – and even though pudding was very good a trattoria cannot rest on tiramisu laurels alone (well, not unless you’re Pompi in Rome – famous for its tiramisu). It’s also very much a meat-eater’s place with no fish and few vegetarian options. That is very Tuscan … but just be warned. I’m not going to be telling people they must go there, but if you’re in the Clerkenwell area … well then it’s a reasonable choice as a place to eat.