Someone once said that you should pick the battles you can win. The same could be said for restaurants and chefs. Pick the dishes, menus and ideas you can achieve and excel at them. Leave the rest to the customers.
Old school French, with its army of waiters, serious chefs, elitist menus and uncompromising service may not be in vogue at the moment but that hasn’t stopped Italian restaurants continuing to do what they do best: serve customers with familiar food in an atmosphere where they feel comfortable.
At Il Vicolo in Crown Passage at the bottom of St James’s Street, you’ll find an unassuming Italian restaurant that the majority of gastronomes would pass by. That’s fine, keep going. Il Vicolo is not for you.
However, if you like restaurants that don’t desire to impress you but simply feed you in a genial atmosphere with a host who always remembers your name then step right in.
Giacomo Bonavita has a knack of making his guests feel welcome. He comes from the small village of Briatico in Calabria and his chefs Adriano and Kleber serve authentic Calabrian and Southern Italian food. Pasta features heavily and the food is deceptively simple.
What marks Il Vicolo out from the crowd are the customers. You’ll find wealthy bankers, Royalty, arty types, businessmen, tourists and romantic couples all enjoying the simplicity of the food and the friendly family service.
Il Vicolo has an enviable customer spread. Its so dependable that recently London’s oldest wine merchant, Berry Bros & Rudd, based on St James’s Street – literally across the alley is the back of the shop - produced a special wine list for Il Vicolo customers.
It’s the first time they have ever done this. The reason: their customers love Il Vicolo, Il Vicolo has customers they want, and they want to promote the shop in the community. The wine list has been phenomenally successful.
“As soon as I put the leaflet on the table my customers started to buy The Berry Bros wine. It’s like a stamp of approval,” Giacomo told us, “They all know Berry Bros and understand that it stands for quality. So, having a short but diverse selection of Italian wine, two white and two red, chosen by their Italian experts has revolutionised my wine offering.”
In the kitchen, Il Vicolo is exactly what you'd expect. Small and understated, pasta cooling in the corner, basil everywhere, fourteen different pans on the stove and three passionate chefs right at home.
This is simple home cooking, reflected perfectly in the staff food one of the wait staff and the commis chef were enjoying on their break. Pasta with a classic bolognaise with fresh bread.
Said the ravenous commis: "It's just how mamma used to make it!"
I joined the kitchen for dinner service, and straight away, orders for the veal cutlet in breadcrumbs came flying out of the ticket machine. This was as simple a dish as you can imagine: flatten cutlet of veal dipped in egg wash and then breadcrumbs, deep fried and served with cherry tomatoes, a rocket salad and a lemon wedge.
Pasta dishes remain the most prominent on the menu, however, and it wasn't long before the stove was littered with pans of pasta in various states and sauces. Kleber, a South American chef, is the man for the job, juggling all with ease.
Spaghetti with meatballs, traditional calabrian pasta in a walnut sauce, twisted pasta and veal in a cherry tomato sauce, butterfly pasta with oyster mushrooms, prawns and cream - Kleber had the lot, and the chute which takes the dishes up to the main dining area was soon squealing its demands for an oiling.
With such a small amount of ingredients making up each dish, the emphasis for the kitchen here is consistency in the product. This refers again to Il Vicolo not needing to impress, so to speak. Rather to provide comfort and familiarity, which is surely the essence of simple food.