The 76-year-old Italian still trains the group’s chefs and helps develop menus, but he is really no more than a figurehead these days. So I wondered what would happen to the place when left to its own devices.
To find out I visited on a Tuesday night with my wife. Across the street a crowd hovered outside the Theatre Royal waiting for the opening night of Fiddler on the Roof, but aside from the theatre crowd the streets were far from busy. Carluccio’s, however, was packed − vital for a place like this, which makes or breaks on its atmosphere. We sat at a corner table; a prime position for spying on other customers: students, shoppers, business-types and groups of 30-something friends. There seems to be no Carluccio’s stereotype.
The menus arrived quickly, shortly followed by hugely plump green olives, fresh bread (in a baking tin) and olive oil (oh, and a beer and glass of Prosecco − we were on our way). The menu is robust, but not extensive (a good thing) and it never pretends to be fine dining; fun dining would be a better description. This ethos is underlined by the fact that Carluccio’s is open for breakfast and has its own deli − it is designed to be casual and bustling; it’s a place that hopes to become your regular, rather than being saved for special occasions.
We had Mozzarella Fusa (£6.95) and Pâté Di Fegatini Di Pollo (£5.25) for starters. The service was slick and the waiter eager to impress. Both dishes were crammed full with the kind of flavour you want from Italian food − rich cheese, earthy pâté and a complex Tuscan bread that was particularly noteworthy. As we continued to chit-chat we selected a Le Vigne Merlot Veneto (£18), which was a real beauty. Like the menu, the wine list is broad enough to be interesting, but not overly complex.
For main courses I selected (on my waiter’s advice) the Pollo Alla Cacciatora (£12.95) and my wife chose the Cotoletta Di Vitello (£12.50) with a mixed salad (£3.95). The former was by no means a large offering, but the roast chicken worked well with the tomato and herbs. The veal was delicate and well-presented in a parcel of herb and Parmesan breadcrumbs with a splash of lemon. The salad was excellent. It’s the food that makes you most aware of the name above the door − it’s a heartfelt homage to Antonio’s homeland.
Despite filling up we tried the Chocolate Fondante (£5.25) and Formaggio (£6.50). My cheese was a well-balanced selection from across Italy with an excellent accompaniment of truffle, walnuts and Italian flat bread. By the end of our evening the tables were still filling up with more diners. Maybe they had been unimpressed with Fiddler (unlikely as I'm told it was superb), but more likely they had simply heard: Carluccio’s is a lively place to eat great Italian food. Antonio has left it in safe hands.
Carluccio’s, 0191 2302148