I’ve never been to Italy – I’ve never laid in a gondola, looking at the stars while a man serenades me with a song about Cornettos; never posed for a photograph that looks like I’m holding up the leaning tower of Pisa, with dozens around me attempting the same thing and looking like uncoordinated backing dancers in Soulja Boy’s Crank Dat video; I’ve never even done a third hypothetical Italian thing, because I haven’t been to Italy, like I said.
My knowledge of Italian food comes from three sources; a Penne recipe that my Mum got from a Sainsbury’s advert in 1992 – containing a tin of tomatoes and a Pepperami – Goodfellas frozen pizza, and Goodfellas by Martin Scorcese (if this film doesn’t subconsciously spring to mind every time you slice a clove of garlic, then you weren’t paying enough attention). That’s why even with my firmest intentions, and the most enthused recommendations from friends who are really very good at eating well, it’s taken me absolutely ages to get round to visiting Zucco.
I know that there are good restaurants that serve authentic Italian food, but for every Tagliatelle like I ate here – light tasting, but flavoured boldly with mushrooms and white truffle oil – I’ve suffered through several impotent cannelloni and Carbonaras swathed in béchamel sauce, it’s enough to make a skeptic out of anybody, I’m sure you can empathise. The appearance and ambience of Zucco does its best to assure you that it isn’t one of those places- no smoked-glass mirrors, wicker-clad Chianti bottles repurposed as candle-holders, or oil-drizzlers placed on checkered tablecloths; just elegant white enamel tiles and a lot of dark wood – it looked like the kind of place a stronzo like myself would wind up getting offed if I was in Boardwalk Empire.
The clean, minimal theme continued into the menus; single sheet placemats containing a list of todays dishes without much in the way of a description, so if you’re a pleb rather than a worldly, sophisticated food-blogger then you might have to ask what a Saltimbocca is, or how to tell your Arancina from your elbow-macaroni. I was accompanied by my Fiance and Mum and it was my birthday, so I let them assume pleb-duties for the evening; asking what words meant while the charming and knowledgable owner explained, and I sat ears-pricked, swirling a Negroni and nodding knowingly. There are few idioms I loathe more than “The awkward moment when…” but when the owner explains that the Polpette is his Nonna’s recipe meatball, and you’re really just not in the mood for a meatball, I felt totes #awks!!
Not that I have a problem with Nonna’s cooking – especially if she inspired the Smoked Haddock and Scallops, with a cream sauce that I’d gladly have sucked out of an old bandage – it’s just that I didn’t see it as a dish which suited a meal of sharing-plates. Neither though, was the Osso buco – a clenched giants-fist of Pork shin topped with a Mint Gremolata to complimented its texture, like that of slow-roasted Lamb. So I shared it as little as possible. Unlike many Sharing-plates restaurants, the dishes are brought out in an order which best suits the people eating them – novel – so the Pizzette with gorgonzola and spinach arrived first, along with a pretty hefty pile of Truffle Salami (a revelation!) Coppa (is this more truffle sala…Oh, no) and Cacciocavalo cheese (…perhaps there’s some more of that Truffle Salami under this cheese). The Soft Shell crabs were served whole, and the amount of meat wasn’t really worth the effort of extracting it and looking like a grown man trying to assemble a kinder egg toy while wearing goalie gloves, but I’d like to keep a hipflask full of their accompanying tomatoey, umami broth in my pocket at all times from now on.
Even sharing between three – and despite the fact my capacity for storing food increases with each review I write – we only got to try ten plates from a menu from which I could have ordered twenty. While we chatted before ordering, the owner mentioned that “People often order too much because they expect tapas portions rather than starters and the chefs get upset. I’d rather people wait and order it next time”. Presumptuous, sure, but I think I’ll do just that.
Parmesan Flatbread £3.50
Spinach, Gorgonzola & Walnut Pizzette £5.95
Coppa, Truffle Salami & Caccio Cavalo Cheese £7.75
Smoked Haddock & Scallops £7.25
Soft Shell Crab & Clams £8.95
Parmesan Breaded Chicken Cotoletta £6.25
Pork Osso Buco £6.85
Tagliatelle al burro with Wild Mushrooms & White Truffle £5.85
Flash Fried Seasonal Vegetables £2.95
Stuffed Red Pepper with Anchovy, Capers & Breadcrumbs £5.95
Raspberry Bellini £4
Prosecco Cocktail £5
Aperol Spritz £5.50
Total (inc Service) £90