This article was also published in the Financial Times.
It is unusual to meet a restaurateur who is successful and widely admired by both his customers but also by his fellow-restaurateurs and yet at the same time feels that for a large part of the past 17 years while he has been practicing genuine southern Italian hospitality he has been largely misunderstood.
Yet that is the overriding conclusion I came away with after lunch with Giuseppe Turi, the 54 year old proprietor of Enoteca Turi, just south of the Thames by Putney Bridge. Amongst many in the restaurant business Turi is highly respected because he has stuck to serving the food and the wines he knows so well and, while staying in this one location, has not allowed himself to be diverted in any way from this well-intentioned purpose. For anyone with a particular interest in wine, and not just Italian but also some particularly chosen bottles from around the world, Enoteca Turi has become a most attractive place in which to spend a hugely enjoyable evening.
The pleasures of the food and wine Turi offers are enhanced by the simplicity of this enoteca’s surroundings. There is a striking collection of black and white photos of illustrious Italians including Sophia Loren, Enzo Ferrari (unusually without his glasses) and Frederico Fellini and some vibrant images that will recall for anyone sitting by them memorable Italian holidays whether by the sea or in the mountains. The few horizontal surfaces are taken up with wine paraphernalia: decanters; great old bottles, sadly empty, and several full magnums in their wooden boxes.
The purpose of all these photos, Turi explained, is to reflect Italy as it is and as it has been and that simple ambition is carried through by the menu. There are some engagingly appetising first courses: baked asparagus with a walnut salsa; grilled squid with a broad bean pure<acute>e: their own salted cod with capers as well as several distinctive pasta dishes notably laganelle with mussels, squid and chick peas, a combination of boiled and fried pasta which has its roots in Sicily and ravioli filled with aubergine and burrata, the soft ewes milk cheese from Puglia.
Although the timing on two of the main courses was not quite right – the skate was slightly overcooked and the rabbit undercooked – what is particularly attractive about the menu are the vegetable accompaniments with each dish. Baby artichokes in the Jewish style, of Roman origin, with the rack of lamb; a frittedda of broad beans, artichokes and peas with the skate and stemperata Siciliana, spiced and diced aubergines, peppers, olives and potatoes, with the rabbit. Distinctive and equally effective is the small glass symbol and number which refers every dish to a particularly suitable glass of wine. Desserts are very good.
We began with three of the six different white wines Turi offers by the glass but then chose something far more unusual, a bottle of Terra di Lavoro 2002 from Campania (£75) to compensate me for the fact that no sooner had we sat down than what is referred to professionally as ‘the customer from hell’ sat down at the next table. His particularly loud and repeated denunciations of a recently departed wife and frequent, injudicious use of the word faggot were, however, interspersed with one unforgettable phrase when he pompously dismissed Turi and his wine list with the request to bring him ‘two glasses of your best house red’. By twisting away from him and studiously inhaling the powerful wine, I was almost able to make my neighbour disappear. Turi humoured him as a restaurateur must, the consequence I came to realise, of a toughened professional.
Born into a farming family near Brindisi in southern Italy Giuseppe Turi initially disliked catering college and in his early 20’s formed a farming co-operative growing vegetables with his brother. “We were idealists,” he explained, “and at that time people were leaving the land. We thought we could be different but a lack of support, particularly from local government, meant we were unable to fulfil our dreams.” When the co-operative failed after four years Turi came to London but this deep association with the soil and with the tastes and flavours it can produce has predicated all he has done since.
Initially, working in the restaurants at The Athenaeum and Connaught hotels, this interest expressed itself in wine as he gained promotion and passed the Wine & Spirit Education Trust exams. Determined to break away from the then French monopoly, he then opened Enoteca Turi in 1990 with his wife Pamela, an act which combined poor timing with an equally poor reading of the market. “My dream was to offer the simple flavours of dishes you could find in Italian homes and I remember putting a sign outside the enoteca that read ‘Regional Italian Cuisine’ but the only Italian dishes people wanted to eat then in London were veal escalope, pollo sorpreso and tricolore pasta. After a while I took the sign down.”
Misunderstood but not bowed, Turi took to the kitchen with, he confessed, ‘disastrous results’ but the longer he spent there the more aware he became of the role he had to fill. “I realised that my chefs did not have to be Italian themselves as long as I could make them understand the food I wanted to serve. For the past two years Brian Fantoni has been the chef here. He is English, although his parents are Italian, and he was classically trained at Claridge’s but now he is almost as obsessed about the roots of Italian food as I am.”
What sustained Turi along this route was the realisation that as important as regional diversity is to Italian food the country’s historical roots were equally important, Norman across the north, Etruscan to the centre and Greek to the south. “These influences are obviously not as precise today as they once were but they are important. In my experience I have, for example, found that southern Italian dishes are often more precisely cooked by North African or Greek chefs than by north Italians. And this association of flavours is probably best exemplified in the one olive oil we use for the restaurant and the kitchen. I would love to say it is from my home region of Puglia but in fact it is Greek, from the Kalamata region. It’s not heavy and has the piquancy we are looking for.”
Turi went off to the kitchen to find some diced wild garlic leaves which dipped in the olive oil and alongside the grilled artichokes evoked the memories of the food he had eaten as a child. As the smile appeared on his lips I took the opportunity to ask him which fascinates him more today, wine or food. “Oh, food,” he replied immediately, “because I have come to realise that it’s the genetic fingerprint of my country.” Perhaps now the time is right for Turi to swap the enoteca name for the regional Italian cooking sign he abandoned long ago.
Enoteca Turi, 28 Putney High Street, London SW15 1SQ. 020-8785 4449
OTHER INDIVIDUALS WHO PUT TOGETHER GREAT WINE LISTS
Jean-Claude Vrinat at Taillevent, 15 rue Lamennais, Paris 01.44.95.15.01 and the less expensive L’Angle du Faubourg, 195 rue Faubourg St-Honoré 01.40.74.20.20
Robert Bohr, Cru, 24 Fifth Avenue, New York, 212-529 1700
Robert Vifian, Tan Dinh, 60 rue Verneil, Paris 01.45.44.04.84
Giorgio Pinchiorri, Enoteca Pinchiorri, Via Ghibellina 87, Florence 055.24.27.77 and in Tokyo at Ginza Core Building 03-3289-8081
Charlie Young and Brent Woonton, Vinoteca, 7 St John Street, London EC1, 020-7253 8786.