Homely pizza and pasta on offer in burgeoning Marylebone.
Jessica Colli is extremely Italian.
From her name to the rapid-fire English she speaks with a strong Italian accent. From the manner in which she obviously still adores her mother and her father, the former chef who, when she was growing up in the family restaurant in La Coruna, Spain, made her as a little girl go up to the customers in his restaurant and ask them how they were enjoying his food. To the attention and care, and it is probably not too much of a stretch to call it love, that she shows to every customer who crosses the threshold of the restaurant that today she has made very much her own.
The restaurant has the very un-Italian, and strictly not very geographically correct, name of Il Blandford's, behind which lies another story.
The café opened originally on Blandford Street, from which it took its name before 25 years ago moving to its current location a street or two away and taking the name with it. Colli started work here seven years ago when it was a greasy spoon café. Recognising that the owners, who were then in their late sixties, were intent on retirement, she offered to buy the business and promised to keep some part of the name as a connection to the past. Il Blandford's was born, as was Colli's career as a restaurateur.
The restaurant is small. Once you have walked in, you are face to face with the bar, which doubles during the day as the holding place for cakes and desserts. This makes for a cramped entrance but allows those standing behind the bar to greet anyone walking in with a cheerful buongiorno or buonasera.
Tables, for fours and twos, are slightly rough and ready and cheek by jowl. The little space that is left over between the bar and the front door is invariably taken up by Jessica herself; by one of her waitresses; by a customer coming in to make a booking or waiting to collect a pizza; or by a cyclist waiting for a takeaway order. There is the same lack of space behind the bar, while the area that is so important in any restaurant – the pinch point where waiters or waitresses bring the food from the kitchen and take the dirty dishes back, which customers have to cross to go down to the lavatories and across which all deliveries must pass – here reminded me at 1.30 pm on a busy lunchtime of the traffic around Hyde Park Corner.
Colli is the daughter of a Spanish mother and an Italian father who was the chef at Mimmo d'Ischia in Belgravia for many years. Like so many parents in the restaurant business in those days, they wanted a 'better career' for their daughter and sent her off to university to study law. Jessica and tertiary education did not prove to be a happy mix and it was only when her parents cut up her credit card that she understood the meaning of tough love. Working for Caprice Holdings and Peter Gordon's Providores – where her cousin, who called in for an after-lunch espresso with her father while I was there, is still general manager – convinced her of the attractions of the hospitality business.
From here it was just a short move into what has been her new home, 65 Chiltern Street, an area that has become far more popular, and expensive, since the arrival of the Chiltern Firehouse hotel and restaurant down the street. Across from Il Blandford's is Fucina, which describes itself as a modern Italian restaurant and lounge, while next door, occupying a prominent corner site, is a branch of Arro Coffee, an outfit that describes itself as the temple of modern Italian coffee. Round the corner on Paddington Street is a branch of Zizzi. The competition close by is severe.
This area of Marylebone may remind some observers of the Soho of the past, and I would add another parallel. Jessica reminds me very strongly of the late Elena Salvoni, the London-born but very Italian maîtresse d', with whom I had the pleasure of working at L'Escargot during the 1980s. Jessica is considerably taller, and more forthright, but both put the greatest possible care of the customer at the very centre of everything. Both, too, incidentally, rely heavily on face recognition when it comes to looking after their returning customers, as neither had or has a head for names.
The food is decent Italian trattoria style. The lasagne is one of the best dishes, still made using Jessica's father's recipe for the all-important béchamel, as are the other pastas, including a fettuccine alfredo, with lemon and (a lot of) cream. Pizzas are the right size, ie just about manageable for one. The desserts are generous and I particularly enjoyed their crème caramel. The coffee is Illy, quintessentially Italian, and is served with a square of Monbana chocolate. Prices are very fair. The wine list is not particularly great although the corkage charge is a reasonable £10 per bottle.
Jessica would like to improve the look of her restaurant but is stymied by the landlord and what she can afford. Weekly sales of £18,000 ensure that the restaurant is profitable and that everyone is paid but leave little left over for a major refurbishment.
As we left after dinner, Jessica came to wish us goodnight carrying a pannetone that she thrust into our arms, saying 'this is how Italians celebrate Christmas'. The food at Il Blandford's may not be the equivalent of the Italian food at the River Café, for example, but the welcome could not be warmer.
Il Blandford's 65 Chiltern Street, London W1U 6NH; tel +44 (0)20 7486 4117