Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Cecconi's, Mayfair

If you were to put a gun to my head  - and I'd really rather you didn't as it's just a figure of speech - I would say that Italian is my favourite food. Not only 'favourite' in that I eat it most often, but also in that it is the cuisine for which I feel the most affection and enthusiasm.

One of my earliest culinary memories is of my mum eating a plate of something terribly exotic-looking (at least to my three-year-old eyes) which turned out to be spaghetti bolognese and would be my first taste of 'foreign' cuisine. My ultimate comfort food when ill, depressed or down-hearted is tortellini in brodo from a recipe taught to me by an Italian ex. And when a couple of years ago I took a grown-up gap year and buggered off to eat my way around Europe and beyond for a few months, it was The Boot which won hands down for the quality, variety and memorability of the food on offer. There are many other cuisines that I like very much, but it's Italian I like the most.

Now, brace yourselves for another revelation but I think I also have a new favourite restaurant. Cecconi's, the perennially-popular trattoria on Burlington Gardens, is so bloody good that since my recent dinner there I haven't stopped raving about it, have been recommending it to everyone, and simply can't wait to go back. If you're sufficiently interested to know what it is about the place that's got me so worked up  - and you were prepared to put a gun to my head to find out my favourite food let's not forget, so I'm guessing that you are - it can be explained in a very small nutshell: Cecconi's does everything that one would expect of a restaurant very well indeed.

To begin with there's the physical appearance of the restaurant itself. It's located on a corner of a very smart Mayfair block, behind Ralph Lauren's flagship megastore, across from the elegant Burlington Arcade and adjacent to Savile Row. The frontage is made up entirely of high french windows which allow a clear view of the inviting dimly-lit room within, but once inside far from feeling like being in a goldfish bowl one feels warm and cosseted, and the outside world feels far away. The interior's a beauty, incredibly luxurious - all huge ornamental crystal mirrors, dark wood, green leather chairs and vast velvet banquettes - but not flashy or over-the-top, the monochromed tiled floors and low light tempering, without obscuring, the opulence.

Then there's the terrific service from super-friendly, super-committed staff, from the greeter's enthusiastic 'Buona sera!' to general manager Giacomo Maccioni's beaming tableside banter and each and every waiter's courtesy and attentiveness. When we (being best pal Andrew and I) asked our waiter for his recommendations, he didn't just rattle off the dishes he'd been told to push that night as happens in many establishments; instead he asked us pertinent questions such as how hungry were we, and did we like this or that, before making his measured suggestions. Wine is left for guests to pour themselves, tap water is served in attractive but also highly practical tall jugs and dishes come out from the kitchen at exactly the right intervals demonstrating that things run as well behind the scenes as they do front of house.

And of course, there's the food - the wonderful, delicious, and  - I use the word with the thunking great caveat that I base this only on my knowledge and personal experience, not any purported expertise - authentic, Italian food. To start with we shared a house selection of cured meats, bruschette and cicheti (which, until the arrival of Polpo and Polpetto, Cecconi's claimed to be the only restaurant in London to serve) and a plate of vitello tonnato. Both were stunningly good, the highlights of the selection, all of which was excellent, being peppery, salty Umbrian sausages, perfect not-quite-set, milky mozzarella and some lovely prosciutto San Daniele, as pink as Babe and just as tender. The vitello tonnato - thinly-sliced cold veal criss-crossed with a creamy, mayonnaise-like sauce made with tuna - was a textbook rendition of a classic and immediately transported me back to another favourite restaurant, Quattro Leoni in Florence, where I last enjoyed this dish.

Although in Italy it would pass as ignorant foreigner behaviour (though in fairness, my behaviour in most countries passes for that too) we both chose pasta as a main rather than intermediate course, pappardelle with venison ragu and chestnuts for Andrew and crab ravioli for me. While my ravioli were delicious, feather-light parcels of sweet white crab meat just moistened with a couple of spoonfuls of buttery broth, I suffered serious plate envy at the sight of Andrew's huge bowl of inch-wide pasta ribbons nestled in a chunky, dark sauce. It tasted as good as it looked; cooked long and slowly, the venison ragu was as intense and robust as my dish was delicate and light, the scattering of chestnuts adding sweetness. A side order of crisp, salty zucchini fritti disappeared as quickly as they must have been fried.

To finish, Andrew ordered the chocolate fondant with pistachio ice cream and I the selection of Italian cheese. We were warned that the fondant would take twelve minutes, and exactly that time later our waiter delivered a neatly plated prism of dark, glossy chocolate loveliness and a simple, elegant plate of three cheeses - one blue, one hard, one goat's, all very good - served with pears and honey. The fondant was exactly that, melting, and oozed most satisfyingly as the spoon went in and the filling seeped out, mingling with the bright green ice cream as pleasingly on the eye as on the palate. I couldn't have been happier with my cheeses; the pears-and-honey combination is one I love and was made even better by an accompanying glass of port. 
Drinks-wise, we had also enjoyed a bright, floral 2009 Veridicchio dei Castelli di Jesi, as well as couple of pre-dinner cocktails including a superlative Negroni.

All of this combined - great room, faultless service and fantastic food  - makes for a very happy clientele, and the enjoyment in the place is palpable, manifesting itself in the sort of buzz that new start-ups and faded greats alike - I'm talking about you, The Ivy - can only dream of. Cecconi's feels like its always been there, and on-and-off since 1978 it has, which is forever in restaurant terms. This alchemical ability to make a venue and its customers feel like old friends even when they've only just met is the secret of Cecconi's-owner Soho House Group's global success; it comes as no surprise that Cecconi's now has branches, closely modelled on the original, in West Hollywood and Miami Beach.

None of this comes cheaply; cocktails, three courses, one side, one port and service racked us up a bill of just over £150. Strip away the extras however, and order a cheaper wine (there are seven available for less than the £31 we paid for our Verdicchio) and you could get away with about £45-a-head, less at lunch - or even breakfast, as Cecconi's is open from 7am until very late. Alternatively, the bar - the focal point of the room with its spotless glass panels, high stools and Prosecco on draught - would make a lovely spot for a quick wallet-friendly bite or romantic assignation at any time of day. 
I certainly hope to get back to my new favourite restaurant as soon, and as often, as possible.

Cecconi's, 5a Burlington Gardens, London W1S 3EP Tel: 020 7434 1500 http://www.cecconis.co.uk 

Cecconi's on Urbanspoon


  1. Breakfast is pretty good. Cracking ambience, as you say.

  2. I'm surprised it took you so long to visit - I assumed this was already one of your favourites! It's a great place for lunch on a Saturday and anywhere that has prosecco on tap has my vote!

  3. Oooh I've been recommended this place a few times recently, I really must get there soon!

  4. Ollie - I'll have to try it, if it's as good as dinner then that's a mighty fine breakfast.

    Emyr - It's one of those places that I've been meaning to go to for years and only just got round to. Now that I have, I'll be back.

    Kavey - I can see why people would recommend Cecconi's; hopefully mine will be the recommendation that tips the balance and gets you through their doors!

  5. I really love the decor, and have only been for breakfast, but for some reason the chemistry has never been there for me. Sounds like I need to try it in the evening. I'm totally with you on the amazing virtues of a comforting bowl of tortellini in brodo.

  6. The photo is great. It shows the atmosphere in Cecconi's. Your review made me enthusiastic about this place. Now I not only want to go there, I want to go there now. Not possible unfortunately but I'll do it soon.

  7. Great review my friend! I am off to this place next Sunday for brucnh with 5 other Barbara's and am looking forward to it even more now! Woop woop! Scotty O


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