When I accepted the PR invite for a review visit to Donna Margherita several weeks ago, I didn’t realise how many blog posts would already have been made by fellow bloggers by the time our visit came to pass. A busy diary, combined with the owner’s holiday schedule, meant we were unable to visit until the end of September. Would I still have accepted had I known how many others already had? I don’t know. Certainly the Donna Margherita is not local to me – it’ based in Lavender Hill, just a few minutes walk from Clapham Junction station; I’m a North West London girl. I hope, as readers, you’ve not quite had your fill of Donna Margherita reviews just yet!
What persuaded me in the end?
-My intense nostalgia for our desperately missed local Italian (which closed last year) .
-Cherished memories of a food-filled week on the Neapolitan Riviera (back in 1997).
-The promise of authentic Neapolitan cuisine, especially the pizza.
-The fact that Pete and I like eating out, take pleasure in trying new places and love Italian food.
-And of course, I’d by lying if I didn’t also mention the allure of a freebie that we’d actually enjoy!
Much has been written about the acceptance of invites to review restaurants and products (by way of complimentary meals/ deliveries). Like many others, my feeling is that, if the restaurant or product is one I would naturally visit or buy, I am open to the idea. Of course, my acceptance is dependent upon lack of pressure (or even the merest suggestion) to write a positive review. I insist on being wholeheartedly free to write whatever it is I want to write. Fortunately, Donna Margherita’s PR agent, FoxVincent, are canny fellows and no insisting was necessary. It was stated upfront that Donna Margherita are “confident in their food and are keen to get as many honest appraisals as possible”.
Of course, I won’t pretend that an invite to review equates in anyway to a standard (anonymous) restaurant review (where I’ve made my own reservations, paid my own bills and been served by staff who don’t know about my blog). It’s not that I’m worried about being objective – I have no trouble saying things how I see them, regardless of whether I see them in a positive or negative light. A meal or product being comped hasn’t (thus far) made me feel uncomfortable about posting negatively, when it’s been appropriate. The issue, for me, is that a pre-arranged PR visit – where the staff know the purpose of the visit – can’t possibly be representative of the typical experience of a regular diner. Certainly, I can hope that both the quality of food and the service provided are consistent for all guests. But I can’t attest to it of my own experience.
So I’m not going to present you with a standard review; one that might serve as a blueprint for the experience you too might have. Instead, I’ll share with you my appraisal of the venue, the atmosphere and the talents of the kitchen.
The evening starts well, we’re able to park in the residential street just around the corner – free after 6.30 pm. Greeted and seated, and (soft) drinks orders given, it’s not long before Gabriele Vitale, owner and head chef comes out to meet us.
After a little chat, he disappears off into the kitchen. The friendly waiters serve our drinks as well as a bowl of olives and some bread, which I think may be made from the same dough as the pizza. I forgot to ask but it has that characteristic, very slightly sour taste and oily texture of matured pizza dough bread. It reminds me of the home-made bread we enjoyed in La Lotta, that local favourite that closed last year. So far so good!
Time to take a better look around us. The interior is simple and homely. Pale yellow walls are decorated with an eclectic mix of framed photos, football shirts and paraphernalia. Exposed brickwork and shelves full of food products run along one side of the room. A large, flat screen TV is showing a black and white film about monks. Lighting is warm. Wooden tables and chairs are reassuringly solid and packed in quite closely. It certainly brings to mind a thousand homely trattorias in Campania and Naples, it’s capital city.
Gabriele reappears with dishes containing a large selection of starters. Confetti-like strands of aubergine and courgette are battered and fried, served in a charmingly haphazard pile, and eaten greedily with fingers. A potato crocche (croquette) contains a subtle but tasty hint of ham and cheese, within it’s smooth, fluffy interior. A meat arincini is perfectly formed, with a lovely texture and taste. Montanara – little deep-fried, tomato and parmesan-stuffed parcels of pizza dough are more more-ish than I expected. Meatballs are juicy, well seasoned and complemented by the freshest tomato sauce. The melanzane parmigiana is amongst the best I’ve had – a perfect balance of aubergine, tomato sauce and mozarella – the aubergine slow-roasted to maximise depth of flavour, a wonderful rich tomato sauce and really top quality mozzarella cheese. Mozzarella in carozza is filled with the same good quality, chewy mozarella, but the breadcrumbs are dark, not quite burnt but a few seconds too long in the fryer – the only off note of the selection.
And then it’s time for the pizza Margherita. And I have to make a confession. I never order Margherita pizzas. Never. I’ve never understood the appeal of having nothing but tomato sauce, cheese and basil and nothing else. Now, I’m not one of those freaks who likes to pile so many toppings on the pizza that the entire thing steams rather than bakes, but I do like to have 2 or 3 carefully chosen toppings to provide interest. I have always dismissed the Margherita as little more than a pizza base missing it’s raison d’être.
But I can tell from the pride with which Gabriele presented his pizza Margherita that this is, perhaps, his signature dish. As he cuts the pizza into quarters, he educates us about the base. He says that the thin and crispy pizzas found in the UK are too crispy, this isn’t how they are made in Naples. The base shouldn’t be so crunchy as that! It should be soft!
Taking a quarter, he deftly uses his cutlery to flip the outer edges across the centre, making it into a narrow arrow shape. “It must be eaten like this,” he said, “but with the fingers”, delighting in the floppy droop of the folded slice. We follow his instructions and dive in.
Oh my! In that one single bite, I become a Margherita fan. With a punch of fresh, tomato flavour from that delightful napoli sauce, the perfect chewy texture of the buffalo mozzarella and the savoury tang of the fresh basil leaves not to mention the drizzle of olive oil just as it comes out of the oven, it really doesn’t need a single extra topping! And the base? Thicker than the typical thin crust base, it has an incredibly soft, pillowy texture, like biting into a cloud made of dough – the perfect foil to those simple toppings. For those needing a bit of crunch, the crust delivers a nice bite.
As we eat, Gabriele talks about the origins of pizza. As his website explains, Neapolitan cuisine has benefited from the influence of many other cultures, over the centuries. Arabs, Normans, Spanish and French have all left their mark contributing ingredients, methods and flavours. New world ingredients such as peppers, coffee and, of course, tomatoes, are commonly used. Pizza was likely born out of the Turkish flatbreads, cooked in wood-fired ovens and topped with simple ingredients. The Margherita, as I’m sure you’ve heard before, is thought to have been invented by pizzaiolo, Raffaele Esposito in the late 19th century, baked for a visit from King Umberto 1 and his Queen Margherita, and intended to represent the colours of the Italian flag.
Having grown up in Naples, and attended catering school in Italy too, Gabriele is very keen to bring authentic Neapolitan cuisine to the UK. Together with his brother, Enrico Vitale, who looks after administration and design, and his manager, Luca de Felice, also from Naples, Gabriele aims to provide a typical Neapolitan dining experience. Given that many of his customers are Italians, he seems to be succeeding. Certainly the restaurant is reasonably busy even on a Tuesday evening. We like the mix of customers, from families with young children to groups of friends to couples like us.
The atmosphere is relaxed. Waiting staff are helpful and efficient but don’t expect very quick service. Donna Margherita is the kind of place you come to for a slow, relaxed evening of food and chatter, not to grab a bite and go. Drinks are bought quickly, but good food takes time to prepare and serve.
Next out is a plate with two dishes to try; a risotto and a pasta. The risotto is creamy, with just the slightest bite to the rice – perfectly cooked. Italian sausage gives a meaty porcine hit plus a hint of garlic, herbs and spices. The risotto also contains friarelli, an unfamiliar vegetable which thrives in the ashy, fertile soils of Naples and is also known as broccoli rabe. The wilted leaves resemble spinach and provide a welcome slightly bitter, mineral flavour. And smoked scamorza cheese adds extra creaminess, as well as the expected hint of smoke.
I haven’t come across calamarata pasta before. So named for it’s resemblance to rings of calamari it hails from the Campania region (of which Naples is the capital). Gabriela has used it in one of the day’s specials, and lists the main ingredients of the sauce as sea bass, sea bream, aubergine, courgettes and tomatoes. As he hands us a basket of bread, he points out the unctuous sauce and tells us it’s traditional to mop it all up! How to describe the way the flavours all come together in this intense, rich dish? If a student tinned-tuna-tomato pasta sauce is the penny whistle then this dish is the hand-crafted concert flute, made for those who appreciate quality! Pete doesn’t really eat fish, but after politely trying it, he helps himself to three more servings, as do I. We fence with swords of bread over puddles of thick sauce!
Stuffed to bursting point, I probably look panicked when Gabriele suggests we move onto the main dishes. Much as I’d love to sample them, we skip to desserts instead.
The panna cotta, served with a chocolate sauce, is the only disappointment of the evening. Whilst the gently wobbling texture is perfect, there is no flavour. I’m a big fan of a truly subtle panna cotta, with just a hint of sweetness in the cooked cream. But this one simply tastes of nothing at all. The chocolate sauce served with it isn’t great either; it tastes cheap and sickly sweet.
But the torta caprese more than makes up for it. Moist, dense and rich, this chocolate and almond tart is a fantastic end to the meal. Hailing from the island of Capri, it’s a simple recipe, made very well. The almonds have been blitzed but not powdered, so still give a nice bite. Pete, who usually shuns anything with even a hint of nutty texture, again can’t resist Gabriele’s version.
A small, strong caffè latte completes the meal.
It was my intention to film a short video interview with Gabriele, in which he could share more about the challenges of bringing Neapolitan cuisine to a country more familiar with Northern Italian dishes, talk to you about how he sources many of his top quality ingredients from Italy and share some thoughts on good food and dining. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the restaurant just became far too busy, so the interview will have to wait for another time.
Instead, Gabriele invited me into the kitchen to take a few photographs of pizza being made, before showing me once again, how to enjoy a traditional pizza Margherita, made the Donna Margherita way.
Given the location of Donna Margherita, it’s unlikely that I’ll become a regular, though it’s just the kind of restaurant I’d love to have locally. But for those for whom it’s not too much of a journey, I’d certainly suggest paying a visit. Let me know what you think!