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02/08/2008

La Famiglia, Chelsea, London


La Famiglia
– 4/5

I’ve never been before, but arriving at La Famiglia feels like coming home. A Chelsea stalwart that opened when the King’s Road was a sea of bell-bottoms, LSD and stagflation, it’s forever drawn Sloanes and schlebs like flies to a UV light. Zap! Down they fall, twitching, at the feet of Alvaro Maccioni (left) and his Tuscan fare. He opened the restaurant when olive oil came from Boots and when wicker-wrapped Chianti bottles were quite the thing, but the timelessness of the place today is simply lovely.

The A-list, apparently, sits in the covered garden, but the Thring for Your Supper proles are given a nice table by the window. The decor is, er, a little decorscerting. As well as charming black and white photos, blue and white tiles, calming enough in small number, are glued everywhere. On and on they go, line after transfixing line, downstairs to the loo (beside the kitchen, where cleavers flash in the striplights). There’s an abattoir feel to this, a hint of The Shining, abetted by the butcher’s stripes on the maitre d’s waistcoat. But he welcomes you with a smile like you’ve come home safe from a war. You half-expect him to wrap you in a bear hug and weep tears of joy over your shoulder, which is a very pleasant way to begin the evening.

‘If a chef cooks like his mother,’ Maccioni opines, ‘he is a great chef. But if he cooks like his grandmother, he is even greater.’ Whoever Quinto Cecchetti cooks like, his menu is too long. Diners face a torrent of 16 meat dishes and 15 plates of pasta, as well as fish, risottos, antipasti, soups and a changing ‘weekly menu’ of 14 dishes. From the supermarket to the multiplex, too much choice is a bane of modern living: at La Famiglia, less would definitely be more.

Still, C chooses brilliantly throughout. She begins with Tonno alla San Corrado, raw tuna carpaccio seasoned with diced peppers, tomatoes and onion. I can’t think of a better way to begin a meal: this is cleansing, enlivening and reasonably complex, though all the ingredients sing. Yellow peppers generally do as much good for a dish as Jeremy Kyle for families on housing estates, but here their sweet crunch is put to effective use. M (who is infinitely more beautiful than the imposter Judi Dench) also starts with tuna, deemed ‘special’ on the menu, with a chickpea puree. This special tuna is specially tinned, and while it’s of excellent quality, its hyper-fishy punch is perhaps a bit much to start dinner with. The hummous-esque paste that comes with it is of limited benefit: the fish might be nicer just with hot toast, lemon and olive oil, though that doesn’t appear to be on the cards.

Everything I order, by design rather than accident, is deep-fried. Mrs Gillian McKeith would balk at my battered food (and perhaps my battered liver), but you can tell a lot about a place by the oil it fries in. Carciofini, those gorgeous, wispy courgette flowers, are tricky to pull off: they should be perky, freshly cut, batter light, oil hot. The gold crisp on these ones almost vapourises to the bite, and they’re very well seasoned. But the flowers themselves are somewhat on the saggy, wrinkling side, like deflated balloons.

My main course is a huge portion of very fresh calamari, containing lip-smacking bits of squidgy tentacle and lashings of lemon juice – when I ask for a second half of lemon, the hearty response is ‘Anything forra da customer!’ Like the carciofini, though, the squid is a little wide of the mark, pummelled by the oil into slight chewiness; though I still guzzle every last one with the lovely house white, fairly priced at £14. I’ve also ordered a tomato salad, suprisingly not on the menu. While it’s dressed with a good olive oil and has a garnish of sprinkled basil leaves, it’s unseasoned – an elementary error. Admittedly, I can salt it myself. But slips like this, almost quaint in Florentine restaurants charging a few euros a dish, are a little less charming where the food costs considerably more.

C’s beef is another matter. Tagliata di Manzo is blood-rare, blistered by the charcoal to release a delectable smokiness, with a few frills of lamb’s lettuce the only garnish. The menu informs us that the beef is ‘free renge’ – and at £26.00, I demn well hope so. Unquestionably the dish of the evening, this is beef so tender I almost can’t bear to chew it, though of course I eventually do. If the menu were merely contracted a little, Maccioni could tighten the kitchen’s timing, which might avoid issues like the overcooked calamari and maintain winners such as the beef.

There is much to love about La Famiglia. The show isn’t stopped by every dish, but food here contains glints of wonder that remind one of the quiet confidence of Tuscan cooking, which doesn’t need lettuce foams and anchovy cappuccinos to let the glories of its ingredients shine. It’s a shame there aren’t a dozen places like this in London, and that quality Italian food – here or at Locanda Locatelli – should be so associated with the rich and famous. This is emphatically not a neighbourhood restaurant, which is, I suppose, what I wish it were. Still, it’s outstanding food served by passionate people, and if that has to come at a cost, so what?

La Famiglia, 7 Langton Street, London SW10. Tel. +44 (0)20 7351 0761

Dinner for three, excluding drinks and service, costs £85.

La Famiglia on Urbanspoon

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