La Bocca di Lupo (http://www.boccadilupo.com/) is in Archer Street, but don’t let that put you off. This non-street runs directly behind Shaftesbury Avenue, housing one or two stage doors of the cramped theatres at this southern end of the avenue, as well as the occasional media offices where metrosexual chaps with hair like squirrels fur plug themselves into i-phones or i-balls or i-packs and chat to editing suites which are only around the corner in Wardour Street (it would be quicker to walk, ladies). But La Bocca di Lupo shines on like a beacon of hope for happy Ligurian masticators. Despite the fact it’s been open for well over a year, I hadn’t managed to visit it until this week.
Oh, we were a happy band – me, Mr Bluebird, mother of Bluebird, Stepfather of Bluebird and Auntie and Uncle of Bluebird. The reason we were happy is three of us had downed most of a bottle of champagne in the Mother Bluebird’s flat before supper, and then walked, screeching and guffawing and burping, the ten minutes to the restaurant, whilst the Mother Bluebird told some rude stories. It was all rather festive. The restaurant is small (which is usual for Italian restaurants, my Italian teacher told me – well, she told me in Italian so she may have been talking about skiing, or envelopes, or John Lennon, for all I know) and noisy. Too smart to be a trattoria, once inside, the chattering noise levels makes it sound like a trattoria but it doesn’t look like one. Sleek, swish and with a long, white marble-topped bar by the entrance which stretches towards the back of the restaurant; such layout seems de rigeur for Italian restaurants in London these days. There’s something about sitting at a bar that – like writing a cheque – never fails to make you feel grown up. At lunchtimes, the bar is practically empty and offers a special lunch menu; and I suggest you take yourself there forthwith. In the evenings, availability is a little trickier; expect to book in advance – and expect a 7pm table if you book less than 2 weeks ahead. But it will be thoroughly worthwhile.
Our waiters were lovely and chatty; one of them got so thrilled at doing his job he inadvertently smashed a glass at an adjoining table (mazel tov!) which made up for the smashed people around our own. For starters I had some black figs, proscuitto and an Italian cheese which tasted like brie combined with Dairylea and something far nicer, called stracchino, which internet research has told me is 50% milk fat. It was divine and generously apportioned, which meant the remainder could be slavered on top of focaccia bread and chomped satisfyingly. To follow, I had the lamb (medium rare) with chilled spinach with olive oil and lemon (wonderful, much better than it sounds) and then a bit of everyone else’s side dishes. Stepfather Bluebird, directly to my right, was having a marvellous time with the guinea fowl. Dishes are offered at two prices, either as a starter or as an entree, so you can shape your own meal. My lamb was brilliantly cooked, with a generous pile of rucola, but I had to pace myself. After all I had to save myself for two puddings.
The two puddings thing is the result of di Lupo‘s brilliant marketing ploy; they fill you up with montepulciano d’abruzzo, cream-laden cheeses and then a dessert menu with Italian specialities like black cherries on ice and then steer you towards their ice-cream shop on the other side of Archer Street. Once you arrive here you are powerless to resist; chestnut, hazlenut, pine nut, sour cherry amereno and ricotta, coffee & honey are just some of today’s choices : (go to http://gelupo.com/.) But the joy of the ice creams is that they are not made with cream where possible, but only with sugar syrup, and the sweetness is helped with carob seed. This goes some way to depleting your guilt; the calorific content of this ice cream is lower than any Haagen Dazs crap you can pick up in Sainsburys, and a hundred times better. They also do free tastings, and offer ice-cream loyalty cards, in the manner that coffee shops do. My first pudding – back in the restaurant – was milk-free espresso ice cream that knocked my socks off. Then afterwards, I had a bit of everyone else’s ice cream in the gelateria.
The only thing left to say, regarding La Bocca di Lupo – and Gelupo – is that Frith Street’s Little Italy needs to watch it’s outdated Tuscan step. This long-standing Italian restaurant of Frith Street extended it’s dining space about three years ago and doubled the prices on its menu so its customers could pay for it. In doing so, the aesthetic layout of the restaurant was destroyed and it lost its charm. In a world where La Bocca di Lupo charges between £5 and £7 for a variety of innovative Lazian and Venetian side dishes of exceptional quality, it’s hard to see how long Little Italy will get away with the nonsense of charging £13.00 for an 1990s-style antipasti of mozzarella and sun-blushed tomatoes. Forget them and get yourself to Archer Street without delay, my friends. Polpo and La Bocca di Lupo have been much needed breaths of fresh air in Venetian and Ligurian dining in London. The old lady of Frith Street better take note; when it comes to Italian restaurants in Soho, the bar has been raised.
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