Take Il Forno. It was always an unwritten fact that there were two types of Italian restaurant – the cheap and cheerful, and the overdressed and disappointing. As if the quality of the meal was in reverse proportion to the quality of the gold plated taps.
So Il Forno, when it arrived at the top end of Duke Street, all torches blazing, marble and mirrors, and huge open-jawed pizza oven had ‘overpriced and underwhelming’ written all over it.
But there’s a twist – because Il Forno wasn’t just a glossy magazine spread in waiting, it was home to a skilled and passionate crew if Italian food evangelists. And, before long, diners forgot to look at the backlit onyx and the wrap around deli counter and, instead, focussed on the main event, the simply great plates of pasta, the top drawer house specials and the plummily delicious Chiantis.
It is, by some margin, the best upscale Italian in town (although we still miss Boca De Bacca’s garlic bread), and, as evidenced by the buzzing atmosphere on the Monday evening we called in, it’s a view we’re not alone in forming. Hey, we’ll even forgive the dodgy frescoes.
The wonderfully effusive manager, Donato gave us a whistle stop tour of his homeland by way of a charcuterie plate of the finest Parma hams, Salerno cheeses and roasted vegetables, drizzled with spicy Italian olive oil and balsamic. We could have stopped there, if we’re honest.
But, in that labyrinthine way that all Italian menus are set out, we knew we were here for the long hall. Primi, Pesci, Antipasti and Ringo. We loosened our belts. We took a swig of an incredibly jammy Chianti and settled in.
Next up was the Triangoli di Pesce Spada Al Crostacei (Homemade pasta filled with sword fish and served with tiger prawns) and a seasonal dish of a blue cheese and walnut ravioli, both of which I would happily have delivered, fresh each morning, for breakfast. They were simply mini works of art: no flavour out-punching its neighbours, each mouthful a mini Italian opera.
We’ve tried, and loved, the pizza and pasta before, so this time (somewhat ambitiously), we followed with Steak Fiorentina – bistecca alla fiorentina – a thick flank of T-bone (three fingers thick, if you must know), grilled over slab of volcanic stone, seasoned with salt, and (after the steak is retired from the fire) nutty olive oil.
Thickly cut and served rare I had to balance my strips on their end to let some of that Tuscan blood sizzle away (and to secretly sear it a bit more. I know, I’m such a philistine). The meat was very obviously of a quality you just don’t happen upon in many city restaurants. You couldn’t serve it this simply – this nakedly – and get away with it otherwise. And I always comfort myself in situations like this by secretly remembering that the Queen likes her sirloin well done, so I obviously must have some royal blood in me, if not the blood of a grass fed Welsh Black.
There is nothing I can tell you about our selection of gelato and cakes, of hot chocolate fondues and Tiramisu ice cream with zabaglione liqueur without embarrassing myself (I write halfway through a tedious January detox). So I’ll simply say this: in every way possible, Il Forno dazzles. And we’re lucky to have it. Our meal came in at around £120. But, here’s the crucial bit, we paid for the food, not the decoration.
123 Duke Street