This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Andrea Reitano, only 20 and born in Naples, is one of the three partners who recently opened Assunta Madre, a very Italian fish restaurant in London. I feel confident, for several different reasons, in describing him as the envy of restaurateurs everywhere.
The first is that he has managed to open this restaurant not just in London's West End, where all the world's top restaurateurs want to be, but also at an address that matches the high prices a top fish restaurant has to charge today. Blenheim Street runs between the top of New Bond Street and Oxford Street.
Secondly, Reitano, who came to London only eight months ago to look for a possible location for a second branch of Assunta Madre, which opened first in Rome in 2009, has managed to pull this off without having to pay any premium for the site, a financial hurdle that is currently deterring many of the capital's aspiring young restaurateurs. He readily admits that it was 'great good fortune' that led him as soon as he started looking to this address just as the former owners of what used to be the Italian restaurant trading as Semplice were closing down. Not to have to pay this 'key money' that can now run to several hundred thousand pounds or more and simultaneously to inherit the requisite infrastructure to support a busy restaurant is commercial fortune indeed.
Finally, Assunta Madre has already drawn the attention of several of London's top restaurateurs, far more experienced and established practitioners than Reitano, who have eaten here and who have keenly enquired about possibly buying the top-quality fish that he has flown in daily from Rome. This particular asset is connected directly to the restaurant's name and to Johnny Micalusi, a man with a vice-like handshake.
The restaurant's name is taken directly from that of Micalusi's fishing boat based at Terracina, on the Mediterranean coast 50 km south west of Rome, and it is the image of this boat that appears at the entrance, on the place mats and business cards (photo above taken from the restaurant's website). This boat is the source of all the fish the two restaurants sell (other than tuna) and provides them with an extremely strong identity.
Although since opening his first restaurant, Micalusi has become something of a celebrity back home in Rome, he shows no hesitation in doing whatever is necessary. I first saw him pushing a large, newly delivered fridge into place in the London kitchen and I was subsequently introduced to him as he was standing by the reception opposite the large tank that holds several dozen lobsters. Micalusi put his hand in, pulled out a loose claw and said, 'They're cannibals.'
Reitano met Micalusi as a customer in Rome when there was already talk of opening a branch in London to satisfy the growing demand from the many Italians now living here. Reitano persuaded Micalusi to charge him with this project, telling his father that he was going to continue his economics degree, and with the help of an Italian backer, he is now a restaurateur at an age when many of his contemporaries are still only waiters.
To the left of the restaurant's front door is the pescheria that contains 18 polystyrene boxes of large, colourful fish that range from turbot, red mullet and John Dory to the gamberoni rossi, large red prawns, galinella and large red snappers that are specifically Mediterranean. Once inside, we were greeted by a young Italian waiter who smiled as he led us to our table, and added, 'I hope you're looking forward to some good food.'
Dinner here with my family brought back happy memories for us all of holidays in Italy. There is a sense not just of being merely in an Italian restaurant but actually in Italy, although this impression was somewhat checked as we looked around and noticed that the walls are covered in large black and white engravings of Victorian London. This, I learnt, is because the interior is an exact copy of that of the Roman Assunta Madre, as are the lights, wooden beams and tiers of boxes of Italian wine in every corner. The feel is definitely that of an osteria rather than the more expensive restaurant that the prices on the large menu convey.
My bill for five came to just under £500. We began with excellent stuffed tuna and sea bass rolls and a couple of very fresh sea urchins before moving on to a colourful seafood salad adorned with a couple of their plump red prawns that should have been served a little cooler, and three pasta dishes with respectively sea bass and lemon, clams and scorpion fish.
The choice of main course provided considerable uncertainty as prices are quoted in pounds per 100 grams so that the final price, according to the weight filleted in the kitchen, is unknown. The large fillets of red mullet and the galinella with cherry tomatoes and black olives turned out to be £40 each, although no charge was made for any side dishes. The dessert choice is limited to an apple tart, chocolate cake and ice cream but a highly enthusiastic sommelier made up for this, particularly his endorsement of a Casale del Giglio Petit Manseng 2012 from Lazio.
Fish lovers in Mayfair are fortunate. Assunta Madre is an equally authentic Italian alternative to the Japanese Nobu and the very British Scott's.
Assunta Madre 8-10 Blenheim Street, London W1S ILJ; tel +44 (0)20 3230 3032