Charlotte Street has so many restaurants it’s difficult to know where to start. Or it was, until I went to Passione for a business luch and was bowled over. Stupidly, I didn’t connect it with the Italian cookbook I gave my husband for Christmas… but this is where you can find chef Gennaro Contaldo, one of Jamie Oliver’s mentors among other things.
It’s a small restaurant and looks pleasant but nothing special – pale green walls with touches of terracotta, simple and fresh. The menu looks promising but then so do many Italian menus… was this going to be any different from so many other chi-chi minimalist restaurants that charge a fortune for competent – but hardly exciting – food? Yes.
Actually a resounding yes. This is some of the best cooking I’ve had in the UK, and as I’ve just got back from a visit to Rome I can honestly say this would stand out in Italy as well.
The menu is short, as is appropriate for food cooked from absolutely fresh ingredients, but balanced so there is masses of choice. I could have worked my way through virtually every dish. We sampled three of the six starters on offer (£9 – £12). Carpaccio di spigola (sea bass) was a particular test on my part as it’s one of the best dishes I’ve eaten in one of my favourite restaurants in Rome, Ditirambo. This version was just as delicious – served with blood oranges instead of the mixture of citrus juices used to marinate the fish in Rome – and the fish itself was meltingly tender and absolutely fresh. Mosciame con vegetale misti sott’olio - air-dried tuna with mixed preserved vegetables – and grilled vegetables with bufala mozzarella were also very good.
Just four pasta choices – a ravioli dish of the day, tagliatelle al tartufo (tempting!), or with scallops and bottarga (dried tuna roe). Or… risotto all’acetosella (wild sorrel). This was irresistible as we grow a lot of sorrel but have rarely, if ever, seen it on a menu in Italy – despite the fact that its lemony flavour makes it a fantastic ingredient in pasta sauce (particularly good with orrechiette). All the pasta dishes are available in two sizes (£9.50 – £13.50) and I chose the risotto as my main course. It was fabulous.
Six main course options (£16.50 – £21) cover vegetarian dishes (involtini di melanzane alla parmigiana), fish and meat. My companions opted for veal and lamb cutlets respectively – the veal served with grilled polenta and mushrooms, the lamb with pancetta, rosemary, parmesan and rhubarb. Yes, rhubarb – an inspired choice to cut the fat of the lamb.
Portions are well sized which meant that with a bit of effort, we could also tackle the pudding menu. Gelato Passione was a generous swoop of two home made and very creamy ice creams – limoncello and wild strawberry. Very delicate, exceptionally good. The house tiramisucomes concentrated in a cup – good and powerful. And our final choice, bonet con crema pasticcera, was curious but delicious – a chocolate-flavoured pudding made with amaretti biscuits, but with the consistency of panacotta.
The wine list has many treaures of Italian regional wines and should really be pored over at length. House wine is £13.50 a bottle (my only black mark for the whole visit is that the house white is a chardonnay – there could have been so many other choices). Most are £20 – £30, but the quality of the Friuli sauvignon we tried suggests they may be well worth it. If this hadn’t been a business lunch I would also have got stuck into pudding wines, with Passito di Pantelleria available at £6.50 a glass or £22 for a 50cl bottle.
Service is friendly and totally efficient – that is, I didn’t even notice it. Full marks. Passione isn’t cheap – what restaurant in London is. But at least here you feel that every penny is going in the right place – in the best ingredients and the inspirational cooking.