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Review

Carluccio

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12 West Smithfield
London EC1A 9JR
Tel 020 7329 5904
Price per head with half a bottle of wine: £20

Once a restaurant expands and opens a few branches, one can't help but fear a drop in quality and standards. Will the chef get lazy, abandoning quality for economic success? Should you ever have such fears, a re-assuring trip to Carluccio's is called for.

Antonio Carluccio's latest offering (his fourth) is set in a beautifully converted building on the edge of Smithfield Market. With tall ceilings, large windows and a simple blue and white décor, the café-restaurant is a world away from the meat market across the road. The atmosphere is buzzy and busy with a continental feel, enhanced by the Mediterranean staff and the Vespa for sale. It is particularly popular at lunchtime, when it is overtaken by City folk who come for the short and practical menu: The trademark staples are all here, from fresh bread and antipasti to wild boar pasta and tiramisu. The starter of carpaccio, rocket and parmesan was generous in size and taste – the carpaccio was well seared and the rocket fresh. The only let-down was the dressing, which came slightly bland, due to a lack of vinegar. This left the dish without its customary kick, but the quality of the ingredients meant the dish was well accomplished and flavoursome. The antipasto was also good, with crisp and strong cooked vegetables, which when accompanied by a varied selection of breads (including foccacia, walnut, rosemary and raisin bread),. almost made a meal in itself.

The main courses continue in this vein of using fresh ingredients to enhance staple bistro dishes. My personal favourite is the egg papardelle a la funghi. The papardelle has good texture and bite, while the mushrooms are meaty and crisp. The butter and garlic sauce makes its presence felt without being overbearing. This is a truly wonderful, uncomplicated dish, typical of Italian cuisine. The ossobuco Milanese is just as tempting for meat lovers, the tender veal complemented by a creamy saffron risotto.

The wine list is short and well chosen, with a good choice of both red and white wines from across Italy. All the ingredients, as well as a selection of ciabatta sandwiches are on display to tempt you in the delicatessen near the entrance. With Carluccio's ability to make wonderful dishes from simple staples, you may very well be motivated into buying the ingredients and try the same yourself.