As anyone who reads this column regularly is aware, I have been a student of the Italian kitchen for the last twenty-five years, sot genuine Italian regional cooking resonates with me. Abruzzi is London’s premiere Italian-inspired restaurant, an up-to-date epicurean hotspot serving both modern and emblematic regional specialties.
When the restaurant changed hands a year and a half ago and Karen Brown and Chef Josie Pontarelli left, I feared what might happen to Abruzzi, one of my favourite restaurants. I need not have worried; it turned out to be a very smooth transition on all fronts. New owners, Chef Dave Lamers and Rob D’Amico, and their staff have not only dialled up the experience but have for the most part maintained the food credentials. Lamers tells me, “Our menus are more London-friendly, beef tenderloin versus beef cheeks.” Which, I imagine, we are to interpret as this incarnation of Abruzzi as being less elitist.
That Abruzzi is on the extremely short list of good Italian restaurants serving great food makes it one of the most exciting restaurants in London. That it is in walking distance of the John Labatt Centre and the dining room looks out onto the Covent Garden Market square are additional bonuses.
On Abruzzi’s newly updated website, the restaurant is billing itself as a neighbourhood eatery — which I find to be a misnomer, invoking images of all-you-can-eat spaghetti and meatballs. The restaurant is in fact part downtown neighbourhood bistro and part chic dining room. It is not to be mistaken for the ersatz trattorias that seem to have a pathological focus on faux Italian cuisine.
Abruzzi is well-groomed but casual, with an elegant white marble bar just inside the front entrance. There is an elevated communal table in the centre of the dining room that seats eight. The chairs and banquettes are comfortable enough for a three-hour sitting. The simple, striking décor with bare brick walls and lots of mirrors, the innovative lighting, and the friendly ambience are all central to the Abruzzi experience.
The menu offerings capture the essence of Italian cooking. They are intuitive, often iconic, prepared with locally-sourced and quality ethnic ingredients, executed with skill and an eye to detail. The kitchen has a long-standing commitment to procuring local and sustainable ingredients.
Chef Lamers has the ability to take the earthy Italian culinary vocabulary and imbue it with both his idiosyncratic style and a culinary dialect that is responsive to the seasons. Lamers stresses simplicity and freshness as foundations of the Abruzzi kitchen philosophy. This is the authentic gastronomic spirit that makes cooking and eating absolutely central to family life, whichever part of Italy you are in.
There is a lot to like on the menu. Signature dishes include an appetizer of perfectly cooked Grilled Octopus, with roasted grape tomato, olives, arugula, fingerling potatoes and romesco (red bell pepper) sauce; and the creamy, all’onda (wavy), and perfectly al dente Prosciutto Risotto with local asparagus, leek, grape tomatoes, toasted pine nuts, lemon and fresh basil, which is magnificent. Braised Local Rabbit with house-made pillow-shaped gnocchi, arugula and house-made ricotta has a delicious subtle game flavour. The Grilled Beef Tenderloin, with crispy gnocchi, mushrooms, spinach, green beans, red wine and veal stock reduction is a house favourite. Juicy slices of Everspring Farms Duck Breast accompanied by oyster mushrooms, Swiss chard, caramelized baby carrots, and house-made butternut squash tortellini with dried cherry jus all combine to create a faultless marriage of flavours. This is a stellar dish and drop-dead delicious when ordered medium-rare.
At lunch there with my parents, my mother, a true epicurean, raves about the Grilled Chicken Panini with sundried tomato pesto, goat cheese and provolone. Italian-Style Meatloaf wrapped with Wild Boar Bacon served on soft polenta with sautéed rapini and tomato sauce is true comfort food.
At dinner with my nephew, Nick orders the thinly sliced Beef Carpaccio with truffle aioli, sorrel, quail egg, pecorino, and Tuscan olive oil, which I assure him is a consistent winner. Being far from a capricious eater, he follows this course with the Supreme of Roasted Chicken, which is served with fingerling potatoes, nutty rapini, and a harmonizing lemon jus. Chef tells me the menu is designed to be accessible and youth friendly. The current menu offers four pizzas: Prosciutto, potato, red onion, mozzarella, garlic and olive oil; Mozzarella di buffala, tomato sauce and basil; Abruzzese and soprassetta salami, fresh chilies and mozzarella; and artichoke hearts, olives, grape tomato, and mozzarella, finished with house-made ricotta.
The family of co-owner Rob D’Amico, a veteran local restaurateur, originates from Frosinone in the region of Lazio, a stone’s throw from the Abruzzi border. I have known Rob for many years and I recall a meal of delicious honeycombed tripe and fragrant tomato sauce that his mother prepared for me some twenty years ago at his former restaurant, Caffé Antico.
At Abruzzi the service is palpable, attentive, polished and knowledgeable. Water is refilled promptly, silverware and additional plates are proffered as required, napkins are elegantly refolded when we leave the table, and dishes are effortlessly split when requested. D’Amico is a gracious host, hospitality personified, and, like the staff at Abruzzi, on his game. Abruzzi has retained its team of mature, well-seasoned (Lamers’ adjective, not mine) staff, and still has 90% of its original full-time employees.
The superior wine list has plenty of interesting consignments; it reads like the Magna Carta and like the cuisine, is never static, changing to reflect the seasons. The staff prepare an excellent Café Latte. The restaurant and its owners are both genuine and unfeigned.
119 King Street, London
www.abruzzi.ca Twitter @AbruzziLondon
Bryan Lavery is a well-known chef, culinary activist and writer. Mr. Lavery has spent many years in teaching, consulting, and advisory roles with various culinary initiatives.