In February this year, tons of blogs and Facebook pages started to go into overdrive about a new Italian restaurant due to be opened in East London by Big Mamma Group, a small and painfully trendy collective of trattorias based out of Paris. A cursory glance at their website at the time listed quite a few in the City of Lights, one in Lille and two in London. One, Circolo Popolare, is alive and kicking in Fitzrovia, and I felt more than a bit shit that I didn’t know anything about it. The other – Gloria – was the one that was opening, with the social media masses and the most trusted restaurant reviewers unanimously praising Gloria’s chic-slash-kitsch “70’s Capri-style” design, over-the-top brashness and young, gorgeous staff (whose talents and promotions are wonderfully shouted about on the website!) and equally young and equally gorgeous diners, a clichéd mix of too-good-to-be-true elements that pander to Instagram and – contemporarily – juxtapose with contemporary Brexit-related misery. Gloria was said to be a joy; in the words of Grace Dent, “tons of fun”.
Of course, with all the glam clichés that are bundled up with a hip new London opening, comes one more: the nightmare of getting in. Gloria’s website fails to provide a concrete phone number, and the reservations page simply advise that – yes, you guessed it – “the majority of our tables are kept for walk-ins”. I must say that when I read that, I did kind of tune out and for months, totally forgot about even attempting to get in to Gloria, that is until we went to Bundance, where the metrosexual guy we bumped into (who prophetically proclaimed that “every meal needs a dessert”) mentioned to us that he’d just been there and it was seriously good. I took another look, saw that you can reserve smaller tables on a Saturday lunchtime, and before you can say “hip twenty-somethings” we were on our way.
The day we visited, the city was blessed with an Indian Summer. The streets of East London, bathed in mid-twenties sunlight and warmth, didn’t exactly make us want to have a long, pasta-ry lunch indoors, but on the other hand we’d both had atrocious weeks at work, it was the day after payday and this was our long-awaited award.
When we arrived at Gloria, a plant-adorned but otherwise non-descript shopfront on Great Eastern Street, there was no queue, but the restaurant – an airy, café-esque jumble of clouful tables – was packed to its leafy rafters. While they readied our table, we were asked to take a seat at the tiny bar just inside the entrance, where I pondered the vague feeling that the restaurant didn’t look like how I remembered it from my stalking on Google in February. When the hostess came back, she gestured downstairs. A vague thought came into my head that we were going to be abandoned in the basement, on a table in the utility room, like Marge and Homer Simpson at the Aphrodite Inn.
How wrong we were. We were guided down some stairs, into darker and redder light. Old menu covers and other printed paraphernalia in Italian adorned the walls. Ahead of us was a velvet curtain, illuminated only by a red neon sign overhead:
“SEDUCE AND DESTROY”
Through the curtain was the Gloria I immediately recognised from the pictures. Pastel-coloured everything. A mirrored ceiling. Cocktail menus with a tapestry cover placed upon illuminated tables. The room reeked of Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. My immediate thoughts were camper versions of that scene in Goodfellas where Henry Hill and his date were given a table right at the front of the restaurant, and Frank Alexander’s house in A Clockwork Orange. Pretty, oh-so-pretty servers running around, hugging each other, grinning from ear to ear. The biggest open kitchen you ever did see, manned by a team of immaculate, black-haired chefs, whose leader wore a Yankee’s baseball cap and was constantly banging on a reception style bell to get the attention of the servers.
We were shown to the cutest little table, a tight L-shaped booth for two, looking directly at the kitchen. The music – a mix of U.S. garage, northern soul, disco, hip-hop and African drum beats – was loud but not obtrusive, and very on point. Service – a source of displeasure in quite a few write-ups of the place – was fantastic from start to finish, our waiter being very friendly, attentive (maybe because he did indeed fancy The European, as she maintained throughout the meal) and finding that wonderful balance of being close by when we was needed and almost invisible when he wasn’t – a remarkable feat in a reasonably small dining room.
We ordered a Bloody Mary (made with Bruno X Mezcal and home-made San Marzano tomato juice) and a ‘Very Old Fashioned’ (Lot 40 rye whisky and peach and sage syrup) and waited for the food to arrive. I was – and still am – mesmerised with the restaurant – it shamelessly ticks all my boxes, all the things I love about the way a room looks and sounds. And smells, too – as the waft of truffle hit us as soon as we had sat down. But Gloria hadn’t even played its trump card yet.
The food was unbelievable. Like ‘best Italian restaurant in London’ unbelievable. And for The European to say so as well, and also to say that her late father – a quirky food-loving restaurateur from Naples who bubbled over with character – would have loved it as well, was really saying somthing. Starters of cheese and cured meats sang. Nineteen-month San Daniele ham melted in the mouth (in the words of the menu “everything about this ham is perfect”) and fatty truffle and fennel salami was amongst the best I have tried anywhere. We also took a two hundred and fifty gram burrata, which, when sliced open, covered a bed of pappa col pomodoro soup with its fresh pesto stuffing and perfect refreshing creaminess. We mopped up every drop the sourdough bread served in a leather bag.
Gloria’s pizzas looked tremendous, but we went for pasta instead. We also side-stepped one of the restaurant’s principal photo opportunities; carbonara served for two (or more) in a wheel of pecorino. The European’s Pasta al Tartufo (served in a copper pan) was rich with Molise truffle, the Mafalda pasta cooked to a perfect al dente. She loved it, despite her thinking it needed more salt, but then again she drowns everything in salt (a pot of salt would need more salt). We did agree that my Carmina Burrata was righteously good – a rich, thick tomato sauce smothering linguine, hidden under yet more burrata. Simple things executed correcly win every time. All this was washed down with a bottle of Montepulciano, just one of many decent but affordable wines (ours was £thirty for the bottle, and there were plenty cheaper than this, but there’s also a cellar here offering bottles for a hundred times more).
A meal this good deserved a dessert (our friend at Bundance would concur), so whilst The European took control of two complementary shots of Limoncello I made very short work of Gloria’s oversized profiterole (note the singular), covered in caramelised pecan nuts, stuffed with vanilla cream and finished with chocolate sauce, ladled on by our grinning waiter. Next table over, a woman was having tiramisu spooned into her bowl by our waiter’s equally joyful colleague.
There are some honourable mentions. The crockery and dinnerware – beautiful. Chunky, old-fashioned silver cutlery, and
every plate and bowl adorned with that Seventies-style floral imagery that you
might have rolled your eyes at when granny served up Sunday roast on it in the
Nineties. Hey, it’s back with a bang. The prices were a pleasant surprise – in general. For us, it wasn’t a cheap lunch as we had the
wine and way too much food as usual, but at around an average of £fifteen for a
main course and reasonably-priced drinks by the glass, Gloria could well be an affordable
bolthole. A recent search suggests they
are getting even more relaxed about reservations too. I love the wittiness of the menu, where you
can choose from a Culatello starter, described
as “to ham what Wu-Tang Clan is to
hip-hop”, a truffle-covered burrata stuffed with more truffle “because if it’s not too much, it’s not enough”,
or pizzas called ‘
Brexitalia Truffle’, ‘John Malkofish’ and ‘Regina
Everything you have read about Gloria should ring alarm bell after alarm bell – it did with me anyway. And what you see is indeed what you get. It’s overly over-the top, and a lesser restaurant will make your eyes roll and your skin crawl. But food, as always, binds disparities. In this case, the finest Italian food, made from the finest ingredients (listed on the menu, along with the suppliers’ phone numbers in case you want some of it for your kitchen) gels together a unique experience so baroque but so warm, you’ll come back time and time again. We’re already planning our return.
Gloria is located on Great Eastern Street, ten minutes’ walk from Old Street Station.
- Comfort factor: 9/10
- Returnability factor: 10/10
- Taste factor: 10/10
- Lack of screaming kid factor: 3/10
- Wow factor: 9/10