Alessandro Tomé excitedly tucks into an array of splendid pastas in a ‘happy’ restaurant free of London angst, chi chi and pomp.
It had to take something special to drag me on a Tuesday lunchtime to Borough Market. And this had all the makings of something special. Jordan Frieda and his partner Tim, both of Trullo fame in North London, had finally opened Padella, the eatery I had been so much looking forward to since I had first heard of it as an idea in embryo.
And from that moment, I was quite excited. Like any expecting parents, Jordan and Timo did become a little coy and mysterious at times during this culinary pregnancy, moody at others and downright annoying on the odd occasion. That boded well, I thought. Even the rather long gestation period did not put me off. And according to most ‘professional’ reviews since it opened, this was a big hit.
More importantly than the hacks’ views, customers were reputedly queuing around the corner for an unreservable seat, whether at the open-plan kitchen bar upstairs or at a relaxed table downstairs.
So, with some apprehension, I walked into Padella, my expectations so high that I was at risk of disappointment. It was a relief to know Jordan wasn’t there, as he was floored by the dreaded summer cold. At least I could feel free to have an opinion on his baby without having to be polite. But he needn’t have had much fear and nor did I. First of all, I loved the space. I felt free. Free of so much London restaurant angst, chi chi, preciousness, and pomp. This place oozed ‘real’ and ‘easy’ and most of all ‘happy’. A real open kitchen, with a really talented crew behind the bar at which you sit, cooking up right there, to order, a series of spectacular home-made fresh pasta, spadellate. Or in local lingo, finished off sautéed with their sauce and a little cooking water in a padella (deep frying pan) right there in front of you. The seating is just comfortable enough to make it through a fast and delicious meal, but uncomfortable enough so that you won’t hang around too long. There is a queue, after all. And you don’t hold that against them, because somehow you have just had such a delicious plate of pasta, you sort of want to make sure others get to try it too.
Easy because it is an easy menu to order from, not one that makes you feel inadequate, and because there are happy staff on hand to help you out just in case. But more often than not, some of the other happy souls sharing the space with you will offer their view on what they just had and what you should have. And many are Italians, which is another very good sign. Because we are a real pain when it comes to pasta, in case you hadn’t noticed.
So, for what it’s worth, here is my two cents worth about what to order. I had the burrata with Ligurian olive oil, the oil in a little dimple made in the center of the burrata with a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Real, easy, perfect. For curiosity I had their salami with the delicious homemade sourdough bread. Liked it, didn’t love it. And then to the pasta. I just couldn’t make up my mind as all six pastas that day spoke passionately to my senses. I watched the happy dance behind the counter to help me choose. The fresh pasta brought up on a tray, selected and separated by caring hands before being dropped in one of many individual baskets immersed in boiling water for barely two minutes or so and then joyfully transferred alongside some of the starchy water to the ‘padella’, where the sauce gets added for a thorough ‘spadellata’ over heat, and then tonged into a plate and straight to you. A drooling version of you by then.
Unable to choose, I went 50/50 and had three of them. And post-event, I still couldn’t tell you which one I would have preferred. Pici cacio e pepe is a classic but unusual to most locals as the pici is a sort of hand-rolled spaghetto, more akin to its Chinese-noodle origins than Mr De Cecco’s version. Thick and unctuous, covered in a creamy, peppery sauce that has no cream, only water and parmesan instead. Heaven. The ricotta-filled ravioli were a delight at the other hand of the spectrum, all pasta-making brilliance and subtlety, finished in a light butter and sage sauce, an altar to the light and subtle ricotta, unspoilt by the usual spinach. Finally, a beautiful wintry classic, pappardelle with eight-hour-Dexter beef shin ragu. I don’t think I need to say much more about that one; it is all in the description. Anything to criticise? Yes: the wine. It is ‘fast’ wine to keep up with fast pasta, but for me it doesn’t work. Just unpleasant, but I am sure they will add one or two nice bottles to order rather than the ‘cool’ keg version of wine they currently offer. Or even bring your own? But other than that, even the only two desserts available were delicious, particularly the almond one on the day. In fact there isn’t much point my telling you about the specifics of the menu because it changes all the time along with the available fresh produce, so you could go every week and eat completely differently. But always it will be real, easy and happy.