Published on November 4th, 2014 | by Rebecca Anne Milford0
Valentina Fine Foods, Chiswick
Summary: Has the potential to be a hub in the community - a place to shop, ask foody advice, and drop in for a tasty and informal meal
It is obvious that family and roots are important to the Valentina guys. Not only is it run by the Zoccola and Arcari families, with a close nephew-uncle combo and each branch of the now seven restaurants operated by a different cousin, but much of the produce is also sourced from their home region. This including a delicious olive oil pressed in Sant’Elia Fiumerapido, a small village near Monte Cassino southeast of Rome – pictures of the place brighten up the walls with familiar Mediterranean ochres, terracotta and reds. We also learn that Fabio’s great-grandfather had been making wine for years until he passed away at the ripe old age of 102 – when we ask if it would ever make the list in a Valentina restaurant, Fabio laughs and says it might sell for €6, in comparison to some of the fine £100+ they can offer. Then he reconsiders. ‘Maybe €3’, he says with a chuckle.
We learn all this while looking at the black and white family pictures that decorate one wall, hearing stories of the clan, right from the mouth of Fabio himself. This is the young, bright and dynamic young guy who, in his early twenties, teamed up with his uncle to create a mini-empire of Italian delis and restaurants. He’s working in the newly opened Chiswick branch to give his cousin some time off, and admits he’s loving it – the general atmosphere, liveliness and vibrancy of South West London.
Chiswick is the latest restaurant to open, along with others that are located in Surrey and Kent. You get the sense that the area was carefully chosen, probably for the sense of community which I imagine is the key to success for these guys. There’s a warmth from the Valentina store that seems to want to take that local spirit and harness it within the bright, welcoming building that is primarily a deli, and then leads directly into a comfortable and relaxed area for diners – the leather booths, open kitchen and cheery decor encourage people to stop in and try some of the superior produce. And here we have one of the big guns waiting tables, advising on dishes, and enthusing about the wine list with customers – unusual and gratifying to see.
But what about the food? Can the cuisine equally convey a sense of real Italy to the mouth of the diner? I come on a Tuesday evening to find out, when the restaurant is already busy and buzzing. We are shown into a booth by one of the smiling waiters Christian, and then scan the menu.
All the Italian classics are present, so we ask Fabio what he recommends. The Antipasto Della Casa board is a great way to try some of the best cuts they’ve got to offer in the deli, and arrives as delicate slivers of perfectly pink ham. Thin wafers of meat burst with garlic, or coat the tongue with a salty intensity that combines well with the ball of mozzarella – a gooey globe of white cheese that, once in the mouth, seems to melt with a lovely coating of delicate flavour. This is accompanied by fresh bread and some of that famous olive oil – it’s the colour of sunshine in a bowl, with a peppery kick at the end and a wonderful clean finish.
We also go for the Gamberoni – four huge crustaceans, perfectly seasoned with flecks of black pepper, nuzzling up to some vivid green avocado. I can’t recall having this combination recently, but I’m now glad I have – a mouthful of succulent, juicy tiger prawn eaten with the creamy avocado makes for a delicious starter, especially when drizzled with more of that superior olive oil and topped with rocket.
I go for something similarly sea-inspired for my main – the Linguine, because it’s my favourite and I’ve had it so many times that the distinction between good and bad is clear. I’ve had some disappointing ones (Jamie’s Italian) and some incredible ones (Sotto Sotto in Bath), and luckily the Valentina dish definitely falls into the latter category. It’s absolutely delectable – the pasta is perfectly cooked, with just enough bite, and the ratio of carbs to seafood is ideal. The rich tomato sauce brings out the treasure trove of seafood, but not so much that the dish is drowned. A competent chef must be at work here – balance and seasoning is key, and he nailed it.
This meal is accompanied by a glass of Vermentino from Toscana, advised by Fabio, who is also a sommelier and takes great pride in the wine list. His choice couldn’t be better – it’s crisp and fresh, with a minerality that comes from the proximity to the coast. I also get a hint of green apple and pear – a superb wine to quaff with my seafood pasta.
My partner goes for the signature dish of Cappella Romana – we are told this means helmet, as well as castle. It’s evident why on arrival – a bubbling, steaming hot mound of tagliatelle surrounded by a cage of Speck ham and a pool of thick juice. He breaks into it and the smells of real Italian cooking envelop us – when I do manage to poke my fork in and steal some I get a mouthful of intense, robust meatball and tantalising herb-laden sauce. Not for the faint hearted, he assumes he won’t be able to finish it – but by the end his plate is clean (although I’m pretty sure I see him surreptitiously loosen his belt.)
Now, the meal could have finished here, but no proper Italian experience can be completed without trying the tiramisu. Luckily I leave enough room to enjoy it without groaning and rubbing my stomach – and I advise any visitors to do the same. It’s genuinely one of the best examples I’ve ever tried. Usually I find the sponge rather squelchy and the cream a tad synthetic and overwhelming, but this tiramisu arrives in a pot with the silkiest, smoothest topping that is the luxurious consistency of condensed milk. Accompany this with a glass of Zibibbo from Sicily, with its hints of peach and lemon, and I am one very happy diner
We finish the dinner chatting to Fabio about future plans for Valentina Fine Foods. There are always options to expand, but for now the focus is primarily about making sure that the best possible experience is created for the customer. I can see how this branch could work well as a hub in the community – a place to shop, ask foody advice, and drop in for a tasty and informal meal. A little part of Italy has arrived on the Chiswick high-street, and its winning formula means that I’m confident it will do just as well as its predecessors.
Valentina Fine Foods, 404-406 Chiswick High Road, W4 5TFShare This Post