Our lunch date on the third Sunday in November was an especially amazing one, as this was the first time I have eaten at Bocca di Lupo in fourteen years of trying. Not much has gotten in the way of this most inconsequential of goals, although I did almost dine there for a fourth date in 2010, but my companion decided a few hours before dinner that enough was enough and promptly backed out. Her loss, but on the plus side, my flat mate bought me a pity-takeaway.
Like many restaurants on my hit list, Bocca di Lupo earned its place through a combination of rave reviews and F.O.M.O. When it was founded by chef-owner Jacob Kenedy and his business partner Victor Hugo in 2008, Bocca di Lupo made a swift name for itself through its original and simple multi-regional Italian menu, expansive but not expensive wine list, and a brace of early accolades such as Time Out’s ‘Best Restaurant in London’ award in 2009.
As a household, my flat mates and I made plans to go that very year, but a reservation was more difficult for me to nail down than a fourth date. Life soon got in the way, complicated by London’s booming restaurant scene, meaning that to try a *new* and tasty restaurant was more exciting than to try a simply tasty one.
As the years went by, Bocca di Lupo slid further down my hit list. It remained a choice place to eat thanks to the fundamentals of good food and good wine. Reservations therefore remained tricky, especially after it was awarded a Bib Gourmand from the Michelin guide. Soon after, I disappeared off to Dubai. By the time I returned, with The European in tow, Bocca di Lupo was still there, but then Gloria came along and changed the game. Soon afterwards, we were blessed with Manteca.
As I write this, it’s been a good half a year since my last post.
A lot has changed, not just for me, but beyond. I have changed my job, moving from the human resources role I took on for Google’s Food Program (I don’t think I shared this before, but working there is every bit as amazing as you might have heard), before missing hotels a little too much and going back into them after seven months. The United Kingdom lost a Queen and gained a King, and don’t get me started on the revolving door of Prime Ministers in the same timeframe. Reflecting on my lunch at Bocca di Lupo, it sems apt that we dined somewhere so stoically fabulous amidst such a sea of change. Of course, this didn’t occur to me at the time, as I was too busy inhaling four pasta dishes at once.
There are still difficulties in getting a table at Bocca di Lupo. The only times you’re realistically going to make it happen are for lunches and pre- or post-theatre time slots, and even for then, you’ll need to give a few weeks’ notice. The restaurant isn’t big, so it gets full fast. You’re given the choice of raised seating, upon stools, facing the kitchen, or the standard -gasps- TABLES AND CHAIRS in the atmospherically dimmed finning room at the rear of the restaurant. We reserved the former and received the latter. Whereas this was disappointing at first (I do love watching amazing chefs do what they do best), the sheer volume of food we ordered necessitated a larger table than a two-person-wide pitch of polished white marble countertop would ever provide.
The host scooted us past the bar, which was annoyingly unavailable not because of happy patrons, but because of dirty and uncleared plates. This section of the room gleams and dazzles, the only non-white or non-silver accoutrements being brown leather stools. The main dining room is hardly discernible from here; its dark grey walls adorned with fresco-sized food-inspired watercolours painted by Kenedy’s mother, Haide Becker. Despite its proximity to the bustling bar, the décor of the dining room makes for an intimate experience, if a little noisy, considering the management do all they can squeeze in tables where there should be gaps. I greatly enjoyed listening to the table next door fawning over their cocktails and recent employment woes (perhaps I could have joined in?).
The drinks did indeed look good, so we had what they had, so to speak. A couple of Grapperol Sours contained everything you would expect them to, and tasted exactly like nothing else, the sweet grappa balancing brilliantly against powerful Aperol and a glug of tart citrus juices. I might… well, OK yes, I will say it. It was best cocktail of my life so far. We followed with a bottle of Bardolino. So did the nabe next door. By this stage, we were unsure who was copying who.
I like to think that I can negotiate any kind of funky menu London throws at me, but Bocca di Lupo’s takes some navigating. Beyond nibbles, starters, cured and raw, and pasta, things get a little abstract, with secondi labelled as ‘small’ or ‘large’ (as well as by the Italian regions they originate from). This works fine for pastas and salads; you know what you’re getting yourself into. However, I was tempted to try a small plate of Calabrian sausages, only to see that the table on the other side of us did the same, only to end up getting a one – a single one – that was the size of my thumb.
We decided to do away with the mindfuck of this kind of thing, and stick to what anyone should do when they go to a famed Italian restaurant, and order a ton of pasta. We ordered one of each of the four pastas Bocca di Lupo had on the menu. These were a pumpkin, almond, and chestnut ravioli, a classic cacio e pepe, rigatoni with fat, glorious lardons, and pappardelle with beef shin ragù. We found that these four, ordered ‘small’, was plenty.
We were happy, and ate well, but could have eaten better. The ravioli and rigatoni were the winners, the former being autumnally rich and inviting, a dish made for yours truly in its richness and it basically being a great big winter hug in a bowl. The rigatoni offered a bangingly powerful tomato sauce and oh! those lardons. They were the size of car tires I swear, and oozing with flavour. The cacio e pepe was nice enough but offered too much cacio and not enough pepe. I have had way better, for example at Bancone.
The beef shin ragù was the same. A common staple on many Italian menus in London in lieu of bog-standard Bolognese, ragù has become a victim of its success, and now must be exceptional to be noteworthy. Taker the orgasmic oxtail ragù at Circolo Popolare for example, or the one served opposite our apartment, at the soon-to-be-closing (☹) Con Gusto. Bocca’s was fine. Tasty enough, pleasant. However, it didn’t deliver powerful enough flavours, and the whole dish was actually quite light on the ragù. We were saddened.
Alongside the pastas, we ordered a radish and pomegranate salad to lighten up the load. This tied everything together well; a celebration of freshness and veganic lightness that made us feel way less guilty about the rest of our heavy, starchy lunch.
Of course, we left room for dessert. I didn’t make a note of what mine was called but it was amazing. A dark chocolate ganache with caramel and orange. It was excruciatingly rich but at the same time, I couldn’t stop eating it. The European, repulsed by my shameless one-person orgy of chocolate and god knows how many kinds of dairy (plus a filthy espresso topped with whipped cream), ordered a blood orange granite, devised by Gelupo, Bocca’s ice-cream parlour across the street. She was in heaven, and proudly declared it to be the perfect dessert. It was a wonderful granita indeed, the blood orang flavour coming through in spades, displacing any notion of basically eating crushed ice. Very simple, very clever, and whimsically good.
In the years since it opened, and in the time, it took for me to visit, Bocca di Lupo has become increasingly expensive, as well as exclusive. This wasn’t a cheap lunch, and that’s a shame, not just for the obvious reason of not being able to save my pocket money, but because if it was a little cheaper, it would have been worth every penny. The staff are great, and those standout hits of Grapparol Sours, raviolis, girthy lardons, and granitas don’t quite save the day. That said, as we walked off the stodge in the West End, we both fancied returning. Hopefully before we change PMs once more.