Last year, in the sort of no-man’s land between Old Street and Angel, I visited a restaurant called Sardine. Wood fire, Provencal cooking, a small changing menu, a bowl of unpodded peas to nibble on while you wait. It was an early date with my now partner. In retrospect, I really called those early restaurants pretty well. It was nice to send her a clip of the Sunday Times the following Sunday and say ‘oh look, Adrian Gill went to our dateplace and loved it too.’ But that’s just my inner, insecure hipster: being able to say ‘I discovered that place before it was cool.’
Sardine, I found out, was in part the brain child of someone called Stevie Parle. I’d never heard of him, but after a quick Google, his River Cafe, Moro and Petersham Nurseries credentials did the usual ticks in my mind that a good CV does. Sardine was the first of three restaurants opened in the space of about 15 months. Stevie Parle is clearly a man on a mission.
Pastaio is the most recent of those openings. There’s a sort of kitsch-hipster branding that draws these recent restaurants together. But it’s here where that aesthetic at its most developed.
We’re in Soho. Just off Carnaby Street. Which, at this time of the year, is full to the rafters of people taking photos of Christmas lights. It’s central London, as central as can be.
Pastaio is no-reservation and communal dining tables. When I arrive just before seven o’clock, 10 minutes before my friend, I’m told ‘Yes we have a table, but I’ll have to start the clock now if you want to sit down. You have two hours.’ Hmm.
It is heaving inside. There’s probably 100 covers in a very economical use of space (sardines clearly an ongoing theme for Parle). It’s bright, airy and a bit clinical. Waiters zip up and down the aisles like fancy dinnerladies in the nicest school canteen you’d ever eat in. I order a negroni while I wait and a glass of ice, and a mini bottle of pre-mixed Negroni appears within a minute. Service is quick.
The food here, though, really is very good. I initially opt for the Castelfranco salad (£5) starter – because I’d never heard of it – but changed to the fried mozzarella and nduja sandwich on recommendation from the waitress (£4.50). Sandwiches are one of my favourite foods, so seeing a wonderfully executed one on a menu was a delight. My friend had the cured meats and sweet pickles (£8) (“I’m married to a Slovak, we eat a lot of pickled things at home, but I can safely say that’s one of the best pickled things I’ve ever eaten,” strong praise from him indeed).
The entire selection of pastas looked incredible. Even the slow cooked tomato sauce and marjoram rigatoni (£6) looked appealing. Unfortunately for the rest of the menu, there’s a grouse, rabbit and pork agnoli (£11) at the bottom of the list. We both opted for it. It was rich, herby, gamey and I could have eaten three times as much as there was.
Desserts were well executed, simple dishes: tiramisu (£5) and canoli, ricotta, orange and pistacio (£4), and all in all a brilliant way to round out the meal.
While there’s a few instant turnoffs: no reservations, being reminded of the time-limit before I’d even sat down, etc, it does surpass that. For the less-than-two-hours we were there, I didn’t feel rushed once and the staff efficiency made sure we were never waiting for anything for too long. It’s actually a masterstroke of business: yes, we can eat affordable, incredible, fresh pasta bang in the middle of London, but to do that it requires cutting waste: that means no reservations and quick turning of tables.
Go to Pastaio now. Before it gets ridiculous with queues and you have to arrive at 3pm to get in with a chance of eating at all. And it’s going to get that busy, because it offers top execution of Italian food, at prices you’d find in Italy. And that’s rare in England, let alone in Soho.