Long live Locatelli

bread and Barolo at Locanda Locatelli

We enjoyed a superb Italian meal and chose from possibly London's best Italian wine list.

Twenty years ago, Giorgio Locatelli and his wife, Plaxy, opened Locanda Locatelli on Seymour Street as part of London’s Churchill Hotel, now run by Hyatt Regency. Although then a fashionable arrangement that provided chefs with the financial backing of a large hotel group, this also had its risks.

This was principally because the hotel’s location on Portman Square didn’t seem ideal, being well west of the real concentration of West End hotels. This was in an era before Texture opened just down the road and before Nobu gave his name to the hotel and restaurant nearby.

The Locatellis had no doubts however. They put their heart and soul into the restaurant – he was in the kitchen, she ran the front of house – and together they have prospered over two decades, a long time by restaurant standards.

They were helped by an interior design that has definitely stood the test of time. Locanda has had its share of bad luck – in 2014 a major fire in the hotel kitchens closed the restaurant down for over five months and then came COVID-19. As a result, the restaurant is open for lunch only Thursday–Sunday and for dinner Tuesday–Sunday as it recovers. But a recent dinner there was little short of sensational.

Walking into the principally unchanged restaurant at 7.30 pm brought back a lot of memories. There is the cleverly lit reception desk with the bar next to it; and then off to the right a run of white-clothed tables at which customers seemed to be having a great deal of fun. Tables are broken up by transparent glass panels. The chairs and banquettes are covered in a pale leather which after 20 years has become soft and highly tactile. And the centre of the room is taken up with semi circular seating that allows the tables to seat up to six customers. Little has changed – a tribute to the creative inspiration of its designer, the late David Collins, and his studio.

This interior is the culmination of the work of two men, who, despite having a great sense of humour, were entirely serious about their respective professions. Collins was a designer who always looked at any project from the point of view of its longevity while Locatelli has always been a highly professional overseer of everything his kitchen produces. He wanted a restaurant that would reflect this attitude and, despite the years, it still does. His waiting staff are all dressed in formal black and white; the sommelier is distinguished by a red tie; the general manager and the man in charge of the wine list, also called Giorgio, wear a suit and tie; and the murals on the wall depict unchanging scenes of Italy. ‘You have come here to be impressed’, the restaurant appears to say, ‘and we will impress you’.

Having been welcomed, we were shown to a table where we were sat at right angles to each other (another untold benefit of banquette seating), handed two large menus and the wine list bound in red leather. At which point I lost Jancis for at least five minutes. Their wine list is terrific. It was put together initially, we were told, by the current head-of-wine’s predecessor who has gone back to Italy. The 40-pages of the list are virtually all Italian and are clearly, to judge from my wife’s behaviour, thoroughly absorbing. One half-page is devoted to wines made from Italian grapes outside Italy, such as one from Barboursville in Virginia – outré indeed. The list also includes a bottle of Sassicaia 1985 for £3,860, which we remember declining as too expensive many years ago at Leith’s restaurant when it was on their list for £30! Thwarted in our first choice, we finally settled, on Giorgio’s recommendation, on a £99 bottle of Mantoetto 2017 Barolo from Umberto Fracassi Ratti Mentone that we thought was worth every penny.

broad bean salad

The menu is extensive. There are nine different antipasti, the same number of pasta dishes, and eight main-course dishes, broken down into four fish and four meat. We were immediately drawn to two first courses – HRH to the salad of broad beans, rocket and pecorino shown above, myself to the humble tortellini in brodo shown below, the words of my late grandfather, ‘a meal has to start with soup’, ringing in my ears.

tortellini in brodo

But before that we had to enjoy a basket of half a dozen loaves, which were to prove extremely useful for mopping up sauces, and their house-rolled, extremely tall and thin, mildly cheesy grissini (seen below with some of the restaurant interior) which I have to say must be among some of the very best I have eaten. After that, Jancis chose fagottini, pasta parcels filled with borage and ricotta with a walnut sauce, while I went for the unusual dish of calf’s sweetbreads with watercress and capers.

grissini at Locatelli

The soup was exactly as any Italian nonna would have served. It was nourishing and life-affirming, studded with tiny parcels of melting pasta and topped with freshly grated parmesan. The broad-bean salad was so good and so copious that a doggie bag was requested. My calf’s sweetbread, a Locatelli speciality I was subsequently informed, was exquisite: cut into five small pieces, the meat was soft – and a perfect accompaniment to the wine – sitting in a slightly acidic, sticky sauce rendered so by capers and small pieces of celery.

From the dessert menu, which cleverly offers a couple of after-dinner cocktails (shouldn’t more restaurants try this?), I chose the strawberry soufflé, as much for this dish as for the mascarpone and digestive-biscuit ice cream that accompanied it, as well as two spoons. The soufflé, as well as the petits fours, and in particular the almond macaroon, were as excellent as everything else and all in all well worth my bill of £225.44.

I would just like to add a word about the service, which was the equal of the cooking and the wine. They may have known who we were – I have known Plaxy for almost 40 years since she worked as a waitress in my restaurant – but they certainly gave the lie to the belief that it is only by allowing staff to wear their own clothes at work that you can get the best out of them. They are first class and the manner in which they responded to Jancis’s request to take home the remains of our zucchini fritti (below) and her broad-bean salad was exemplary.

zucchini fritti

My friendship with Plaxy allowed me to ask her two questions by email. The first was to do with the changes they have witnessed over the past 20 years running this restaurant and the second was what difference Giorgio’s emergence as the host of Masterchef Italia had contributed to the restaurant. I print her reply verbatim:

‘We have noticed that people's knowledge of ingredients and understanding of what they are eating has changed dramatically. People are much more aware. The changes are probably not huge – we try to make sure that the menu is appealing to everyone and that we always have a few vegan dishes on the menu. We are working on vegan dishes all the time even though veganism is not in Giorgio’s DNA…

‘The customers have changed. Sadly we have lost a lot of customers, some of whom became good friends, as in 20 years quite a few people have died. On the upside, quite a lot of children who grew up coming here are now coming here with their partners and friends, so that’s a lovely circle.

‘Giorgio got involved in Masterchef Italia four years ago and it has made an enormous difference to the restaurant. We now have a lot of Italians dining with us every night. And it has made going to the market in Italy a chore rather than a pleasure as everyone wants a selfie!’

On behalf of everyone who enjoys Italian food and wine, I would like to wish Locanda Locatelli a further 20 years.

Locanda Locatelli 8 Seymour St, London W1H 7JZ; tel: +44 (0)20 7935 9088