Warmth and generosity of spirit, Nonna-inspired cooking and cosiness are always my hope for Italian fare but, sadly, not always my experience. So, on venturing into Francesca’s Italian Kitchen my expectations were uncertain, although the buzz of a nearly full restaurant was promising.
Early diners are the norm here, as the restaurant is situated adjacent to the Isaac Theatre Royal, in the right spot to capture the overflow – both emotionally and literally – from the theatre next door, making a reservation essential. Promotional posters of operas and stage shows tie into this relationship but both these and the framed black-and-white photos of Italian la dolce vita are somewhat subsumed by a vast expanse of polished-concrete wall, with even the enormous baroque gold-framed mirror over the bar appearing diminished. Dark wood tables, chairs and flooring, and a view of the wood-fired pizza oven go some way towards conjuring some of the cosiness I desire, giving an overall impression of rustic meets city slick.
The look and smell of the pizzas travelling past our table were enticing and the toppings described in the menu demonstrate the restaurant’s avowed ‘passion for authentic Italian cuisine and hospitality using only the freshest produce and the finest-quality local and imported ingredients’, but we decide to concentrate on the primi and antipasti, pasta and mains. This results in an order of Cloudy Bay clams and handmade spinach tortelloni with ricotta, sage butter and Reggiano, but in quick time we are informed that unfortunately the earlier crowd has also been tempted by the handmade pasta and they have run out; so it is a double order of clams to start with and a glass of the recommended vermentino.
This comes from a nicely curated wine list that thankfully includes about half of its offering from Italy; I love the opportunity to try or retry something interesting and Italian wines are so food friendly. In this case the citrus and mineral character of the vermentino and its oily texture was an excellent choice with the pile of just opened (and no more), sweet and succulent clams, topped with crunchy, shaved fresh fennel. What elevated the dish from simple to delicious were the knobs of black garlic butter on toasted sourdough. Their earthy sweetness matched that of the shellfish and contrasted with the piquant pool of briny, winey, garlicky cooking liquor, for which we had to request spoons as the bread was long gone by the mopping-up stage.
The go-to dish here is the gnocchi and beef cheeks but I’ve opted for roasted duck leg with pecorino risotto. A nicely browned duck leg confit is nestled into a bed of creamy ‘wet’ risotto studded with tiny swollen currants. Not only does the rice have just the right texture, there is an intensity of flavour derived from the use of a good stock and translucent strips of sauteed onion and fennel with plenty of pecorino both in and on it. The tangy currants are a great foil for the salty duck, while a garnish of crispy fried kale adds a balancing bitter note, one so often found in Italian cuisine. Across the table the silky pappardelle still had some bite and was coated in chunks of meltingly soft merino lambshoulder ragu enlivened by lemon and slivers of perfumed green olives. Friendly service at a reasonable pace brought us to desserts. The individual elements of the muchtouted tiramisu were excellent but the balance wasn’t quite right; I would have liked more of the espresso and liqueur-laden sponge than the housemade mascarpone. It was though, much more satisfying than the glass-encased panna cotta… no wobble, all wrong!
I really rated the food at Francesca’s Italian Kitchen and I didn’t expect to – so I’ll be back for the handmade tortellini, a quick pizza before a show and a glass of something interesting.