If you like a crostini of enthusiasm with your sharing plates, you might wish to consider taking a wintry stroll this weekend to Negozio Classica, the enoteca, wine-shop and pint-sized back-room restaurant on Regent’s Park Road.
And once inside, ask a question of fast-talking Canadian manager Derek Morrison, who has spent several years in Umbria and Piedmont perfecting his knowledge of wines, cheeses and steaks. His refreshingly unselfconscious North American passion flows as freely as the Sangiovese. Really.
Part-owned by Tuscan winery Avignonesi – located between the historical towns of Montepulciano and Cortona – Negozio (which has a sister outlet in Portobello) is pleasingly casual, especially if, as we did, you elect to sit in the midst of the wine shop itself. It’s far more interesting, we reasoned, to watch folk come in and out, than being in the cutely candle-lit but separated back room.
So yes, it’s an easy kind of joint to kick back in. You can share a plate of cured meats, a couple of stuzzichini – or enjoy a proper meal, under the guidance of head chef Maria Correa Monteiro. We started with a plate of moreish antipasti: salame d’oca (duck), tasty cinghiale (wild boar) prosciutto, and Parma ham, sprinkled with some addictive chunks of tomino (a soft cow’s cheese), pecorino and 24 month-aged parmigiano reggiano.
The lightest crostini followed: the bruschetta classica was satisfyingly made with tomatoes bought from the greengrocer next door, and there was real depth to the chicken liver pate. Even better was a porcelain-white ball of mozzarella di Bufala, all perfectly subtle tart tanginess.
We shared two mains: beef tenderloin, hung for three weeks, with a mature flavour to match the pungent gorgonzola mash and fiery notes of rocket. But best of all? A handmade ravioli stuffed with sweet pumpkin and served with browned butter, parmigiano reggiano and sage.
But it’s a wine shop, first and foremost, so we should really spend a moment on the grape. After a thimble of aromatic white, a Fiano di Avellino, we moved onto a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, its Sangiovese grapes packed with violet, plum and tobacco. For the mains, the wet-soil depth of a Chianto Classico (Castello Monsanto) matched the earthiness of the ravioli; our favourite, however, was a quite masculine Brunello di Montalcino (Le Ragnaie Fornace), which accompanied our steak with its high acidity, smooth tannins and ripe fruit flavours.
All the while we watched as the business of the shop rose and fell like the tide. A cast of characters popped in to pick up an organic or biodynamic number (takeaway wines start at about a tenner, with an £8.50 corkage charge to drink in the shop): “85% of wines you can’t find anywhere else in either the UK or London,” said Derek, “I try to think of the cohesion of wines here as like a musical score, each playing its own note.” And no, that didn’t actually sound pretentious at all.
As for the back room, it was fully booked, so hopeful diners – generally the middle-aged, well-heeled couples you’d expect in P-Hill – shared plates at the counter, or swanned in and out to smoke. There was, in fact, a surprisingly European buzz.
And so to finish? An air-light pistachio pannacotta, washed down by a drop of vin santo, that full-bodied dessert wine packed with vanilla and spices: “It’s aged 10 years already so you can keep an open bottle in the fridge for a year”, said Derek, although we seriously doubt any bottle of booze would last that long in our house.
Except for right now, as it’s that most ascetic of months. But we say stuff the, er, ‘Janopause’ and hit the wines-by-the-glass. You can always walk it off back home afterwards.