19 Dec 2008

Do as the Romans Do

AS I finally left ‘Latium’, it dawned on me that I had failed to try their signature dish: the multi-coloured four fish ravioli. This was spectacularly remiss of me. Their potent little parcels are legendary and that dish won ‘best U.K. pasta plate’. I blame my French companion for distracting me (and fellow diners) with lewd gestures...
Despite being founded by an important duo, Latium has mercifully few pretensions. The team seem content to get on with the business of serving keenly sourced ingredients remarkably reasonably, gathering a faithful following in the process. Its co-owners are Claudio Pulze, who went from being a bellboy to become one of London’s most powerful restaurateurs, and dynamic Roman Chef, Maurizio Morelli.
From the street, there are few hints at such pedigree. Office blinds cling plate glass; serious capitals state ‘ITALIAN RESTAURANT’. Inside, the dining room is smartly minimal. Coal-coloured sofas and vivid, glossy photographs of flowers contrast with white walls and bright poinsettias. On the Friday lunchtime my friend and I visited, it was busy, even noisy.
Never underestimate the importance of bread to an Italian. Latium’s selection, baked on site, was clearly superior to far too many wan rolls, unlovingly baked and chucked on plates. The basket featured: spinach and pecorino, sweet walnut and raisin, almost meaty sun dried tomato and light taupe coloured olive rolls. Brittle Sardinian flatbread from an artisan rather than an accountant in Nuoro represented possibly the only bought in, already prepared food. This was offered with a little saucer of organic Itranan olive oil from the limestone Lepini mountains in Latium, esteemed since Roman times.
I chose the Lingua di Vitello bollito to begin, a salad of moist, surprisingly flavoursome cross-sections of veal tongue with tuna sauce and baby leeks in vinegar. It felt like a stylish variation of tonnato, although inauthentic mayonnaise had been replaced by fresh Italian parsley sauce. Lettuce leaves were brisk and wiry; the jenga of leeks tense. A refreshing, appetising dish, it rendered me as speechless as the calf…
For the primi piatti, perfectly seasoned Pappardelle con Ragù’ di Lepre (hare) illustrated a hearty Tuscan influence (the Etruscans once dominated Latium). It was wholesome: richly animal in its musky, earthy, comforting perfume, which ‘puts everyone in a good mood’ according to Morelli. Whilst the dish might seem simple, it in fact takes a lot of work. I am told that (like me) it is marinated in wine - for at least 24 hours - braised on the bone with vegetables, chopped by hand, then again gently cooked for a further two hours. The wide, silky homemade ribbons (cousin to the smaller tagliatelle) thickly bound everything together.
If the primi piatti was bucolic, the main course was more urban: Filetto di Merluzzo nero (black cod) on curled, part caramelised chicory with unadulterated bottle green worms of samphire and sweet, concentrated red wine must (unfermented grape juice). Rather than apply the pigeonhole principle and interpret the cod as being an Asian influence, I found out that this dish represents a ‘new idea bound within a firm Italian structure,’ the result of ‘a young man who left Italy almost as a teenager and learned and discovered different tastes, textures and culinary cultures in a colourful London.’ The cod’s top was a crisp shard under which the flesh was loose and tender.
My Mokarabia café latte, prepared using an antique manual coffee machine, tasted like liquefied bitter chocolate and did not need sugar. Little chocolate truffles and biscotti were delightful, epecially the sphere coated in cinnamon.
The wine list, some of which is on display, is generally accessibly priced, although there is room for improvement on the list by the glass. It stars an intriguing and personal selection, from lesser-known grape anomalies such as Magliocco, Gaglioppo and Fallanghina to classic Brunellos, sleek Super Tuscans and a handful of posh Piedmontese.
Rather than vaguely amass the greatest hits of Italy’s twenty regions on a menu, Morelli delivers an authored snapshot of his home, developed without a focus on public expectation...
My thanks to ‘Eat Man Drink Woman’ whose radiant reports inspired this booking.
'Latium' - 21 Berners St., Paddington, London. W1T. T. 020 7323 9123
Nearest Tube: Goodge St.
Latium on Urbanspoon