Art & Pasta

My lovely friend Lucia emailed to say she and her husband David had booked entry to the National Gallery – which is open late on Fridays – to see The Ugly Duchess exhibition and were then eating at Bancone after. Did I want to join them? I most certainly did!

We were meeting at 7pm but I needed to go up early to do a bit of shopping in the same area. It was a beautiful afternoon and I sat on a bench near St Martin’s-in-the-Fields for a while contemplating how best to fill in a bit of time.

Across the road, The National Portrait Gallery, whose cafe I’ve often gone into when I have time to spare, was still closed, though due to reopen soon after its long refurbishment. In Trafalgar Square a huge covered bandstand stood and various types of loud music blared across to the elegant St Martin’s where I sat. The noise had probably even frightened the famous pigeons away or maybe they’d flown up to the top of Nelson’s Column to take cover.

I decided to go into the National Gallery early. I showed my ticket to the security guy at the door, explaining I was very early but wanted to go into the cafe. He waved me forward, Go enjoy yourself, he said. I’d had a sudden craving for carrot cake; I’d even passed nearby Santa Nata where I could have enjoyed one of the best Pasteis de Nata in London. Now, I don’t actually eat cake very often at all so quite why carrot cake took my fancy, I’m not sure. But inside the National’s cafe I walked round the display of cakes in the self-service cafe until I spied my cake desire.

It looked a rather indulgent version with all that topping but I was having an outing, so a treat was in order, and our Bancone booking wasn’t until 8.30pm – late for me and still three hours away! The cafe is a nice place to while away a half hour or so; the cake was delicious; the pot of Earl Grey tea particularly good – and a pot is so much nicer than a teabag in a mug! I texted Lucia – they would be a bit early too. So we ended up meeting at the entrance to the exhibition at 6.40.

(Photo from National Gallery website.)

It’s a free exhibition and was very small. Quinten Massys’s painting (1513), actually called ‘An Old Woman’, was familiar to me but I didn’t know anything about it. Not even that it was the inspiration for John Tenniel’s illustrations for Lewis Carrroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) after which the ‘old woman’ became known as ‘The Ugly Duchess’. The subtitle to the exhibition ‘Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance’ is the key to the interest in this painting and the real subject of the exhibition.

The Duchess is virtually an exact copy of a Leonardo da Vinci drawing – a copy of which is in the exhibition. Da Vinci (and I’m not sure I’m ever going to feel the same way about him again!) was a leading practitioner of the Renaissance tradition of deriding and vilifying older women, who are commonly presented displaying vanity and lust. Another drawing in the exhibition – Albrecht Dürer’s ‘A Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat’ – is the earliest known depiction of the witch as a hag and marks a turning point (the accompanying note tells us) in the demonisation of older women during the Renaissance.

It was a strange, and to me rather disturbing, exhibition. The curators argue that at a time when there was an obsession with youth and beauty, such paintings gave Renaissance artists opportunities for invention and play and, moreover, that the ‘Duchess’ and similar paintings were metaphors for social disorder. The paintings and drawings here are presented as examples of satire in which we are supposed to delight. Though fascinating to learn all this, I was not amused. It did spark some interesting conversation between us though, David likening them to the Three Witches in Macbeth who represent evil, darkness, chaos and conflict.

So small was the exhibition we still had about an hour to fill before our table booking. Lucia suggested we could go along to Bancone – just a couple of minutes’ walk away – and see if they could take us earlier. I wasn’t particularly hopeful; I’ve never been to Bancone when it wasn’t packed full. But our luck was in. Yes they could seat us straight away, so we settled down to a lighter part of the evening, away from the grotesque to the glories of Italian pasta!

Now, regular readers of this blog may well be thinking to themselves, Is she at Bancone again! And yes, it was my third visit this year and thus I think it can be classed as my favourite restaurant at the moment. The food is fabulous, the service friendly, and the lively buzzing atmosphere just the place to be on a Friday evening.

As I did with Lucia in January, we chose some starters to share and then our own choice of pasta as mains. Really, there’s no point in coming to Bancone if you don’t like pasta! When it comes to mains, there is only pasta. But that’s what it’s all about here. Earlier in the evening, you can see someone rolling out the pasta dough at a counter in the window. At any time, you can sit at the bar – the bancone – and watch the chefs behind it preparing the food. This is part of the fun.

The menu changes regularly, though there are a few standards. We chose Whipped Cod’s Roe, Pasta Fritta, Lemon (£6) as one of our starters. The delicious whipped cod’s roe was essentially taramasalata. The crispy fried pasta a great way to dip into it.

I couldn’t resist ordering Grilled Artichoke, Romesco, Chervil (£9), which I’d had in April when I went to Bancone with my friend Annette. It’s so good: those gorgeous little grilled artichokes on a wonderful romesco.

And of course we ordered some focaccia too!

My main was Pea & Ricotta Ravioli, Courgette, Fresh Yeast (£16). This was excellent: al dente pasta, fresh peas (clearly not frozen!) and slivers of courgettes. The delicious sauce had had fresh yeast added which gives it a umami flavour.

Lucia chose Bancone’s signature Silk Handkerchiefs, Walnut Butter, Confit Egg Yolk (£11). I’ve had this a couple of times. It’s deceptively simple looking but very special. You have to like butter though – there is a lot of butter. And we saw the confit egg yolks being prepared in melted butter.

David chose Braised Ox Cheek, Pappardelle, Barolo Vinegar (£16). Sitting beside him, I could smell its deliciousness and he liked it a lot.

It was a really lovely evening of art, food and the best company. We said our goodbyes outside Bancone and headed in our separate directions. I crossed over the road, down to The Strand and cut through Charing Cross Station onto Hungerford Bridge to get to Waterloo Station – about a 10-minute walk away. It was almost dark, the Festival Hall was lit up before me and a beautiful tinge of pink brushed across the darkening clear blue sky. A beautiful end to a great day.

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A lifelong lover of good food and travel; writer and book editor

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