By James Eaton
The area around Stockwell tube is not known as a culinary destination. In fact there isn’t really anything to tempt the discerning diner except the excellent Canton Arms up towards Vauxhall and a couple of (great) Portuguese cafes on the South Lambeth Road. So you can imagine my surprise when I noticed what appeared to be an Italian restaurant called Rustico squeezed in between a couple of convenience stores on the south side of Clapham Road.
Now before you all shout ‘but that isn’t in Brixton’ let me point out that Rustico is less than a mile from Brixton tube – about the same distance as say, Negril or the Windmill pub – so you can walk it in about 15 minutes. Or get a bus. Or a tube if you really abhor covering such a vast distance on foot. So it’s not that much of a stretch, especially as good Italian cooking is actually quite hard to come by.
And this is good Italian cooking. Oh yes indeedy-do.
The menu is Sicilian/Italian – plenty of familiar dishes (porchetta, vitello alla Milanese) and others which are well worth discovering. The arancini for example – deep-fried rice balls traditionally packed with a glorious, unctuous (often cheesey) filling of meat and/or vegetables. The ones at Rustico are stuffed with a deeply savoury meat ragu and a generous helping of mozzarella which stretches across the plate as you cut through them. Nothing short of glorious and every bit as good as any sampled in Sicily.
Other starters include an excellent caponata of peppers and aubergines, crisp bruschetta, and a killer dish of baby squid stuffed with chard sauce and spices (calamari ripiene). This is hands down one of the best seafood starters I have ever had – the squid tender and perfectly cooked, the filling immaculately balanced and flavoursome. I could quite happily have two portions of this for a main course and be done (and maybe next time I’ll ask if I can). The meatballs (polpette al sugo) are also excellent.
Rosemary foccacia, fresh from the oven, is light and dangerously more-ish, and the version topped with cheese is decadent and just teetering on the edge of obscene. Any garlic bread with cheese you may have had pales in comparison with the glory of the one served at Rustico. It is that good.
As one might expect from a chef trained in Sicily, there is a good selection of fish available on the menu, both as a main dish such as the fagottino di spada alla putanesca (swordfish with anchovies, olives, and tomato) and a decent selection on the pasta menu. I was drawn to the capelli – pasta filled with a selection of shellfish in a rich and creamy salmon and asparagus sauce – and I was not disappointed. The flavours of the sea sang through the wonderful sauce, plenty of filling and a perfect balance of shellfish and pasta which were all held together by a brilliant sauce. Also worth trying is the fettucini al granchio which is a vast plate of fat strands of pasta, chunks of crabmeat (and lots of them) in a tangy sauce set off with tomato and basil. If you can finish that and still manage pudding you deserve a prize.
Other pasta dishes include a hearty papardelle di cinghiale (wild boar ragu), a simple but pleasing penne alla Norma (aubergines and tomato), and a lasagne that bubbles and warms you through to the very depths of your soul – just right for a cold winter’s day. They also do daily specials of which the duck ragu was a hit amongst our party.
If pasta isn’t what you’re after then there will surely be something on the list of mains or pizza which will satisfy. The involtino di carni is a vast plate of porky joy – pork stuffed with mixed cured meat (yes, you read that correctly – meat stuffed with meat) smothered in a creamy mushroom sauce and served with crisp roast potatoes and some rather English vegetables. There is a lot of food on this plate but you will want to eat it all. A thin bavette steak is also very good but if you order it next to someone having the stuffed pork, you may suffer from portion envy (although you will probably then be able to manage a pudding). The puddings themselves are a classic Italian selection of Tiramisu, profiteroles, and chocolate truffles with ever-changing specials – the apple tart was very tasty – but to be honest I’m generally so full I haven’t been able to manage one. Too many arancini to start. And no, I don’t care – they are too good!
Pizzas are oval shaped and thin-crusted – piping hot and charred from the oven. Rustico have a nice selection of toppings which range from the classic Margherita to one topped with porcini mushrooms and speck. You can also pop in and take a pizza home with you which is handy if you’re nearby or if the dining room is full.
Which, on every visit, it always has been. Rustico only seats about 35 people and so fills up quickly and it is advisable to book in advance, even for lunch. It is great that this little restaurant has become so popular so quickly but with food of this quality it is not entirely surprising. And it not just the food that people come back for either. The service is excellent – warm, friendly, and genuine. The front of house staff will do whatever they can to help and you can be sure of a smile and a wave from the chefs in the semi-open kitchen. The decor is shabby-chic but not in a pretentious way and it is a very cosy place to spend a couple of hours. And if you just want a coffee you can get one to take away too.
So in short should you go? Should you brave the wild frontiers of Stockwell? YES YOU SHOULD!!!! There was some debate amongst my friends (who go at least once a week) as to whether I should write this review in case we were then unable to get a table. But the food is so good I just couldn’t keep the secret to myself.
James blogs at butisittasty.com and tweets @cradlefish