The best regional Italian restaurants in London
From melt-in-the mouth mozzarella to gloriously moreish tiramisu, here's our pick of the capital's top Italian hotspots
For years, Italian restaurants across London churned out a range of tired variations on the same handful of dishes: over-cooked pasta, thick-crusted pizza and perhaps a limp chicken cacciatore or bistecca alla Fiorentina.
More recently, however, the British capital has woken up to the fact that even the notion of a single unified Italian cuisine is a concept that many Italians reject. Across the boot-shaped peninsula there are at least 20 distinct styles of regional cookery, if not many more.
Here then, are some of the best regional Italian restaurants in London (plus a few that just do everything well):
Ostuni – Puglian
London's first Italian restaurant dedicated to the cuisine of Puglia offers food that is “powerfully evocative of the region's landscape, says the Daily Telegraph, “its glaring white cliffs fringed with specks of red coral, its trackless olive groves, its savage, singeing heat.”
Having begun its life in Queen's Park, Ostuni has recently opened a new branch in Highgate Village – and critics agree the north London neighbourhood is all the richer for its presence.
Ostuni's simple interiors feature stone from Locorotondo across the walls, bar and floor, with simple wooden chairs and unfussy table settings.
The menu offers a range of small starters, perfect for sharing, including a melt-in-the-mouth burrata served with aubergine, pepper and tomato, and a lightly battered calamari and courgettes, which are as crisp as tempura.
Mains are a more solid affair with a selection of fish and meat dishes, including a roast lamb rump, seasoned lightly and served with garlic, chicory and slightly al dente lentils.
It is worth sticking around for dessert, if you have room, to match the delicious Caprino mantecato, a honey-drizzled whipped goats curd, with a cold glass of complex spicy Moscato from the coastal town of Trani.
“Unless you live in Queen's Park,” says Richard Godwin in the London Evening Standard, "you'll be wishing there was something like Ostuni in your own manor.”
Enoteca Rosso - the north
British diners are probably more familiar with the food of southern Italy, tomato-rich and steeped in olive oil, than with the elegant cuisine of the north and its emphasis on meat and dairy. Enoteco Rosso, on Kensington High Street, seeks to put that right with a northern-tinged menu that encourages exploration.
Most of the dishes come in three sizes, allowing the curious to range freely through a selection of small plates. The menu changes frequently, incorporating whatever is in season, but the guiding principle shines through: classic dishes precisely cooked and smartly presented. Lamb ragout with saffron tagliatelle is a case in point, the golden nest of pasta topped with an earthy meat stew.
The cheese and charcuterie board are hard to resist, too - and a pile of parma ham, pistachio-studded mortadella and creamy burrata is just the excuse you need for a tour through the wine list. Extensive (and all Italian), it includes plenty of good options by the glass.
Fucina – multi-regional
If it is true that you eat with yours eyes, then the interior design at Fucina offers a veritable feast before you have even taken your seat.
Designed by Andy Martin Architects, it is clear that a confident hand is at work here from the moment you pass through the jauntily pitched sliding front door. Within, simple wooden tables and lime green chairs sit beneath a ceiling made of bricks that bow overhead like industrial stalactites, as though a water leak has forced them gradually downwards over several eons.
Spectacle ingested, it is time for food - and Fucina’s menu doesn’t disappoint. Organised into the typical Italian structure of antipasti, paste and secondi (here listed as “dalla Fucina” or “from the forge”), the team nevertheless have no issues mixing and matching dishes from across the menu, so that diners can choose what they want without being punished by having to watch one another eat while waiting for their own course to arrive.
The Week Portfolio stretched the friendship by ordering a springy tempura-like fried squid alongside a magnificent crab and lobster ravioli dish to start, before asking for a main-sized pappardelle with rabbit ragu to arrive at the same time as veal cutlet Milanese – the latter dish stretching to the full width of the plate, threatening to take over the entire table.
Dessert of tiramisu is rich and deep but the pistachio ice cream is perhaps a bit thin on flavour - the only low in a menu that mostly soars like the ceiling above.
Polpo – Venetian
Polpo's Venetian revolution swept to popularity during London's recent vogue for small sharing plates. Whether you like this style of dining or not, Polpo's menu offers numerous delights that make sharing a tolerable experience. For Jay Rayner in The Guardian, Polpo's highlights include the chopped liver on crostini and the fritto misto of squid, prawns and anchovies in a greaseless batter. Best of all are the "Strips of cuttlefish in its own ink, crusted with gremolata," which are "black in the way Darth Vader's helmet was black." According to the Daily Telegraph "Tapas has never been hipper."
Babbo – Tuscan
Babbo takes you "straight back to Tuscany," says Thrillist, with its "entertaining maitre d' (if you get him in the right mood, he sings), super-young and talented chef Carlo Scotto (who earned his chops with Angela Hartnett at Murano and at Galvin La Chapelle), and family photos everywhere." Tuscan-born head chef Douglas Santi started his cooking career at the age of 13, before working in a number of restaurants owned by Alain Ducasse. It's an Italian restaurant "for people in the know rather than poseurs", says Zoe Williams in the Telegraph. A highlight is the rib-eye steak, Williams says: "I cannot conceive of its being bettered. So succulent, so well presented, so unfussy, so incredibly meaty." This is an ode to Tuscany, dropped into the centre of Mayfair.
Sartoria – Calabrian
Not only does Sartoria offer "hands down, the best tiramisu in London", Grace Dent says in the Evening Standard, it is also a restaurant with enough style to "make you feel like a Federico Fellini bit-part actress when you've simply popped in for a plate of polenta."
Former L'Anima head chef Francesco Mazze's expertise lies in his native Calabria, says Foodism.
Mazzei's ristretto di pollo al marsala con tortellini is "a masterclass in brothery," says Tim Hayward in the Financial Times: "as clear as glass, with just enough gelatinous silkiness to make it clear that a lot of chicken went into its making."
It's a restaurant that, like the region that inspired it, demands a return visit, says Dent.
Bocca di Lupo – multi-regional
With ingredients flown into the country twice a week every week, Bocca di Lupo "might just be Britain's best Italian," says Terry Durack in The Independent. The restaurant has won a string of awards including being named best restaurant in London in 2009 by Time Out and Best Wine List in Tatler's 2013 restaurant awards. While it claims to be regional, it should perhaps more accurately be described as multi-regional with dishes picked out from across the length and breadth of Italy, and each dish's origin clearly marked on the menu. Italy's "culinary regionalism burns fierce," says Tom Parker Bowles in the Daily Mail, "which makes Bocca Di Lupo, paradoxically inauthentic... But those dishes are as true a taste of the country as you'll find anywhere."
Highlights include "Scottadito lamb chops, fresh from the grill, which are suitably finger-searing, heavily salted and blessed with frazzled fat" and "crespelle, heavy with mash, cheese and potatoes: heavenly, glorious Sicilian stodge," Parker Bowles says.
L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele – Naples
Yes, it's that restaurant – the one made famous by Elizabeth Gilbert's mega-selling book-turned-film Eat Pray Love, the restaurant where she declared: "I love my pizza so much, in fact, that I have come to believe in my delirium that my pizza might actually love me."
But don't hold that against this London outpost of the Neapolitan original, which opened in Stoke Newington earlier this year (the other branches are in Tokyo and Rome), and for goodness' sake don't even think of hawaiians - or any toppings, really - beyond tomato and cheese.
L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele, The Guardian writes, "has asserted itself, generation after generation, as a paragon of purism". That means just two pizzas on the board – the margherita and the marinara. If you're lucky, there might be a dessert.
"It is not a complicated menu," the London Evening Standard drily remarks, and "everything – everything – is Italian; I wouldn't be surprised if the tap water were hooked up to a spring in Campania".
Such simplicity means lightness and super-distinct flavours. "The best pizza in London?" continues the Standard. "Possibly."
Vasco & Piero's Pavilion – Umbria
It's not new – in fact, it's pushing 50 – but as the Guardian reports, this Umbrian restaurant still shines. Its regional focus is "a position they adopted long before lesser osterie clocked that concentrating on a specific region was a good wheeze. It wasn't whisked up in a boardroom, it just is".
That means vast bowls of fresh pasta, made in-house every day; meat and fish that are never frozen; and truffles in the season. "Much of the produce here is sourced direct from small Umbrian farms," Time Out says, and the menu changes twice daily.
After all, it adds, if Vasco & Piero have been doing this for so long, they must be doing something right.
Ever since opening back in 2016, Padella in Borough Market has seen a seemingly never-ending stream of customers willing to wait hours for a table - and it’s not hard to understand why.
As an offshoot of Islington institution, Trullo, Padella has links with one of London’s most consistently “excellent neighbourhood” Italian restaurants, says Grace Dent in the London Evening Standard.
While head chef Tim Siadatan's original is all “linen tablecloths, old-school chic and plenty of choice”, Padella’s is “a sparse white space serving a pared-down single-sheet menu”, says Dent.
Among the “to-the point” menu consisting of just six antipasti and eight pasta dishes, the beef carpaccio (made with fillet of Dexter) is “delightfully earthy”, says Ben Norum, also in the Standard, and the “high quality of the produce is obvious” throughout.
Of the mains on offer, highlights include the Italian fennel sausage tagliatelle and ricotta ravioli with sage butter, as well as the always excellent signature pappardelle with eight-hour beef shin ragu.
The effect of this no faff, no fuss approach means Padella retains its sleek simplicity and offers that surprisingly rarest of eating options, a “fine little find for proper but casual sustenance, bang in the heart of tourist London”, says Dent.
Yet it has also been somewhat a victim of its own success, with waiting times often stretching to over an hour and courses coming without pause.
The average 75 minute turnaround is “unpleasantly fast”, says Tania Ballantine in Time Out, but “If staff can just ease up on treating customers like fennel-studded sausages, Padella could be brilliant for dinner. For now, it’ll do nicely for a classy express lunch”.
6 Southwark Street, London, SE1 1TQ; padella.co