When did we last visit Pane Vino? We pondered this question swinging by for a pizza on the Easter bank holiday. I remember writing a little piece on it for the Guardian years ago, but don’t think we’d returned since. Back then I’d been ghosting a cookbook idea with the Michelin-starred Zafferano chef Andy Needham, who often said how he and his former boss Locatelli would visit Pane Vino – and rave about it.
And yet, as Kentish Town’s (foodie) star has risen, so Pane’s seems to have slipped. Readers rarely tweet or email us on its merits (or otherwise). In our 2011 Best Evening Meal Awards it garnered a few votes, but almost every other reputable local eatery received more.
How can it be? And why? Is it food, service or atmosphere? Time to investigate, especially in the light of our recent experience at Trullo, the heavingly successful Italian restaurant which we feel may be able to offer Pane Vino a few tips.
Stefania is the chef-patron. Born in Rome, her almost perfect Sardinian cooking is inspired by a long life in Terralba, on the west coast of the island. If you visit, ask her about it. She’s passionate and engaging. And, like us, you’ll learn something too.
So anyway, Stefania invited us over to try some of her favourite dishes, the ones that have kept Pane Vino in business for 15 years.
It was quiet, we thought as we sat by the window, the night drizzle beyond the panes. How to stimulate younger custom? Throw in a Campari bar and make more of their excellent aperitifs, the on-trend Negronis and Americanos? Dim the lights, refresh the furniture? Do a Trullo – functional, with paper tablecloths and wooden tables?
Or ‘Polpo’, all exposed brick walls, unfinished detailing and industrial lighting?
Purists will of course say no. This is rustic, classic, a tad 1990s, but charming enough, walls adorned with arty black and white shots taken with a pinhole camera. Paul Smith-style stripes liven up the seating a bit too.
After a Negroni, Stefania suggested a glass of dry sherry-like Vernaccia to accompany a colourful plate of Sardinian antipasti on pane carasau (a very thin, crispy flatbread): bottarga, sun dried toms stuffed with anchovies, olives, pecorino, thin-sliced fillet pork, wild boar, and Sardinian sausage fennel. Exceptional.
We then shared three first class tasting portions of pasta. Home-made ravioli with porcini, pecorino, sage and walnuts, linguine with bottarga (silver mullet roe, above) – unfishy, like a polite anchovy; and spaghetti vongole with just the right hit of garlic and chilli, a real surprise in its delicate flavour. Throughout Stefania selected Sardinian wines to match, and her Nuragus was creamy, tart and fruity.
When we were discussing his cookbook Andy Needham would talk endlessly about osso buco. It must be an obsession for Italian chefs. The name means ‘bone with a hole’, referring to the marrow hole at the centre of the veal shank. Stefania cooks hers for 6-8 hours until meltingly tender, its unctuousness livened by fruity olive oil and buttery green beans. Perfect with a full-bodied Anzenas.
Arguably more impressve still was the best sea bass we’ve had for months. Coated in semolina, it’s chargrilled hole then plunged briefly into a salamoia (a salty, herby bath), and accompanied by an earthy pile of spinach. Here Stefania recommended a Costamolino, a crisp fruity white.
Yes, it felt like – that old cliche – being on holiday, except we didn’t choose as well as this on a brief trip to Alghero a few years ago. And the flavours continued till our exhausted end: dolce piccante (spicy cake) and mirto liqueur, a ‘Seadas’, pastry filled with sweet pecorino cheese, covered in honey and served with ice cream. Then 100% pure arabica beaned expresso, with grappa.
But it hadn’t been busy enough during the evening, and it was disappointing to see people coming in just for pizza. This is, we strongly believe, still one of our best neighbourhood dining options. All it needs are a few tweaks.
But on the basis of the food alone, if Pane Vino had just opened in Soho, with a a bit of Twitter heat about its rough luxe decor, dark lighting, and hot young tattooed staff, you’d be booking months in advance. Or, more likely, queuing all night.