When I told friends that I was being taken for dinner at Bocca di Lupo, so many of them asked if it was a date that I actually started to question whether it was. Call me naïve, but it had never occurred to me that Philip, the handsome, single lawyer who I'd met at a party and who'd offered to take me out might have any motive ulterior to wanting the pleasure of my company.
Bocca di Lupo's striking red brick frontage, with the name picked out in bold relief, has the look of having always been there despite being barely two years old. The restaurant behind it has the same feeling; it's a classy interior, with a long marble-topped bar over-looking an open kitchen and a small, smart dining room at the back done out in warm browns and creams. The overall appearance is of somewhere that could have opened twenty years or twenty minutes ago and always be contemporary.
Bookings are taken for both the dining room and bar; our reservation was for the laid-back but lively latter. Notwithstanding the icy draught which blew past us every time the door was opened - which in a place this popular was quite often - it struck me as being the nicer space of the two and a perfect 'date place'; sitting back-to-back with your fellow patrons means sitting cosily knee-to-knee with your companion.
Chef Jacob Kenedy - yes, [sic], only one 'n' - has devised a clever, quite lengthy menu which explores the many regions of Italy, breaking dishes down into half a dozen categories and offering about as many choices under each. Almost all of these are available as small or large plates - perfect for romantic sharing or selfish solo consumption respectively - with the exception of Fritti, fried nibbles which are priced by the piece and Arrosti, a heavenly sounding selection of whole roast birds and fish. Even though I wasn't on a date, I decided to pretend that I was, and let the gentleman - an habitué of the restaurant - order for both of us.
To start off with Philip picked us a Piedmontese battuto - a simplified steak tartare - from the Raw & Cured section, a couple of mozzarella bocconcini from the Roman fritti and that day's special of grilled scallops. It was all wonderful, the battuto light and sophisticated, using just oil to flavour the freshest minced beef, the bocconcini crisply oil-free on the outside, oozing but just retaining some bite on the inside. The scallops however were the real stand-out dish; a good half-dozen whoppers, corals attached (this delighted me but made Philip squeamish; never mind - opposites attract) grilled with a knob of butter and a squeeze of lemon until just cooked through. Couldn't haven't been simpler, couldn't have been lovelier.
We followed this with a variety of small plates from the Pastas & Risottos; the waiter's eyes widened when Philip asked him to suggest four for us to try but my non-date was determined that I should experience as much of the menu as possible. When the food came, the reason for the waiter's reticence became apparent; each 'small' portion was of a size I would have happily accepted as a regular pasta course.
Orrecchiette with red onion, tomato and 'nduja - a fiery, chilli-hot salame typical of Calabria but made by the restaurant - was my favourite for its salty, spicy punch, while Philip preferred the sounds-weird-but-it-works pumpkin and amaretti tortelli with butter and sage, the plump pasta parcels sprinkled with crushed amaretti biscuits. I'm not a fan of anything almondy but tried the dish out of curiosity, and found it a very interesting - and not at all untasty - combination of flavours and textures. A Treviso and Asiago risotto was accomplished if unexciting.
With no room left for any more savoury, we decided to share a dessert - how romantic - and were very happy with our choice of a brioche sandwich of pistachio, hazelnut and chestnut gelati. The gelati, all made by Bocca di Lupo's gelateria-cum-deli offspring Gelupo across the road, were beautiful - creamy, smooth and tasting abundantly of what they were supposed to, something which seems to happen far less often than one would wish - and the sweet brioche layers made the dish feel like a dessert proper rather than just a bowl of posh ice-cream. More adventurous diners than we might want to try the Sanguinaccio - a 'sweet paté of pig's blood and chocolate'. Sounds yummy.
Philip being teetotal we drank only water, but in the name of research I took a look at the wine list and it's a good one. With the exception of Champagne it's all Italian and, like the menu, tours the whole country from thigh to heel, not forgetting the islands; a Sicilian Cavallina is one of several bottles available for well under £20. For anyone really wanting to impress their date or simply push the boat out there's also a 'Cellarkeeper's List' of rare and unusual bottles which reads like oenophile erotica. Service is deeply knowledgeable, admirably passionate and generally efficient, although blatant up-selling of extras introduced an unwelcome corporate note into the otherwise convivial proceedings.
As if his delightful company, erudite conversation and infectious joie de vivre weren't enough, Philip also showed himself to be the perfect gentleman by picking up the bill. Even without a drop of liquor it won't have been cheap; pricing is stiff, with small plates mostly around £8 but soaring higher for seafood and large plates easily averaging £18. I would guess that with service added Philip won't have got away with much change from £100 for our just-good-friends feast. I'd call that fairly good value for the consistently excellent quality, but it wouldn't hurt to have a few more accessibly-priced dishes for those on a budget as well as a date. This gripe aside, I left Bocca di Lupo full of affection for both the restaurant and my host and recommend it to you with a happy heart.
A note about the Duran Duran video which illustrates this post in place of the more usual exterior photo: the 'striking red brick frontage' described above was behind scaffolding on the night we visited, and in any case the battery on my phone died thus precluding the taking of any other photos. So in homage to the restaurant - it's name translates as 'The Wolf's Mouth' - I thought I'd treat you to 80s classic 'Hungry Like The Wolf'. Don't say I never do anything for you.
Bocca di Lupo, 12 Archer Street, London W1D 7BB Tel: 020 7734 2223 http://www.boccadilupo.com