- Food & Drink
There’s magic in names. Say something’s name enough and you conjure it into existence. This is doubly true for Twitter, where an idle comment can turn a half-thought out gag into a real life commitment.
It’s Twitter that’s responsible for Italian Club. It began with friends going to dinner at Trullo and joking afterwards that we should have an Italian Club dedicated to eating its way around Italian restaurants in London.
A hashtag or two later and Italian Club came hiccupping into life. Since its name was first spoken, Italian Club has been to Tinello, Zucca, da Polpo and had aperitivos in the park. And a couple of weeks ago we tackled the big one, The River Cafe, with some Italian Club birthdays as an excuse to justify the extravagance.
If The River Cafe is famous for anything, it’s for serving simple food made from the best ingredients at extraordinary prices. So it was with a jaunty swagger that I made my way through the terrace to our table nestled among the restaurant’s living salad drawer (they grow their own vegetables and herbs). The prospect of spending vast sums of money always sends me light-headed with misplaced confidence.
A further boost to my temporary sense of wealth came in the form of a fresh strawberry rossini served in one of the most beautiful glasses I’ve ever cradled in my hands. It was the perfect summer drink, the pure sweetness of strawberries carried on a wave of acidic bubbles. I found myself, most unusually, delicately sipping it to try to prolong the pleasure.
We’d ordered two antipasti to share between the 5 of us: calamari ai ferri (£15) and fritto misto con zucchine, fiore e melanzane (£14). Two bouncy tubes of squid and a tangle of tentacles had been grilled to buttery tenderness and came heaped with chillies, lemon dressing and a pile of bitter rocket. A light way to get our jaws working and salivary glands drooling.
The fritto misto was a crisp stack of battered courgette, aubergine and courgette flowers. A perfect example of its type but the final confirmation for me that I don’t like battered vegetables. It always seems like a good idea, a cunning way to eat vegetables and enjoy them because what isn’t improved by being dipped in batter and deep fried? Vegetables, that’s what. Light and grease-free as these were, they still made my stomach sink a little under the perceived weight of all that fat and flour.
For primi we ordered 3 pasta dishes to split between us: tagliatelle con vitello (£15), rotolo ai fungi (£15) and penne con pomodoro (£12). The slow cooked veal was the most anticipated and the one I liked the least. It was a bit underpowered, which may have been down to a change in herbs. On the menu it was cooked with rosemary and thyme, on the plate it came with delicate fennel fronds. The robustness of the woodier herbs might have helped shake up the sweet blandness of the veal.
Rotolo ai fungi was a silken roll of pasta stuffed with spinach, summer girolles and ricotta. An earthy, of-the-forest combination that was utterly put in the shade by the penne con pomodoro.
“How good can some pasta and tomato sauce be?” I hear you wonder. It can be extraordinary. The sauce was densely aromatic (and if it didn’t contain a good whack of butter, then I’m a Sicilian gangster’s mother) and the pasta a toothsome delight. I’d travel across to London by foot just to eat a plate of this again.
For my main course I ordered rombo al forno (£38) – turbot wood-roasted with potatoes, summer girolles, lemon and parsley. It was a vast plate of fish. Two enormous slabs of firm-fleshed turbot that nearly defeated me, but there’s something about paying £38 for a dish that ensures I lick the plate clean.
The dolci menu furnished us with much joy, and not just for the sweet-sharp scoops of blackcurrant ice cream (£9) that I inhaled for my dessert. Also listed, alongside chocolate nemesis, lemon tart and panna cotta, was a bowl of cherries. For £9. We came close to ordering them until we remembered that it was a bowl of cherries. For £9.
When a woman sat a table near us ordered them, we were agog and tried to subtly take pictures of the (quite large) bowl of cherries that came past. And she didn’t even eat all of them! £9 for cherries and she only ate half. Now that’s what I call rich.
The total bill, including a £31 bottle of Soave, 2 coffees, 2 mint teas and service, came to £417.49 and I don’t begrudge a penny of it. We floated out of The River Cafe after 4 hours of pure bliss. I don’t think I can imagine a more perfect way to spend a sunny afternoon than sitting among the herbs and onions by the Thames, eating pasta and watching the world jog by.
For another view of this meal, including the best pigeon I ever snafflled a bit of, go to a rather unusual chinaman’s post here.