What's the best Italian restaurant in London? That might strike some people as a fatuous question, given the enormous range of places to choose from, but it's something the judges of the Tio Pepe Carlton Restaurant Awards, among others, have to decide every year. If you ask a food critic, it's a toss up between Locanda Locatelli, the River Café and Zafferano, with Locatelli usually coming out on top. But for my money the golden mozzarella ball goes to Assaggi, the tiny, one-room restaurant above a pub in Westbourne Grove. I've been a restaurant critic for less than a year now, so I can hardly claim to be an expert, but the meal I had at Assaggi was easily the best Italian meal I've had so far.
Part of Assaggi's charm is its unprepossessing exterior. Situated above the Chepstow in Chepstow Place, you have to enter it by a side door and then climb a rickety set of stairs to reach your destination. Once you arrive, you'd be forgiven for thinking you're in the wrong place. It's in a room that's approximately the same size as my kitchen in Shepherd's Bush and contains approximately a dozen tables. Could this really be the most famous Italian restaurant in West London? It looked more like one of those extremely well-decorated broom cupboards in Notting Hill that is singled out as evidence of the insanity of the London property market when Foxtons tries to sell it for half a million quid.
One look at the people, though, soon dispels any doubt. An aroma of upper-middle class prosperity wafts off the clientele like a new perfume ('Wealth' by Calvin Klein). Judging from the cost of property in these parts, they were probably local residents: Goldman Sachs partners, QCs, managing directors of independent television production companies, etc. And that was just the women. They all had that unmistakable stamp that I've come to recognise since starting this job: people who are very serious about their food. As soon as I set eyes on them I knew I was in for a treat.
Assaggi is owned by two Sardinian gentlemen, Nino Sassu and Pietro Fraccari, and the food is a mixture of local delicacies and modern Italian. I started with Pecorino con Carpegna and Rucola, a traditional Sardinian dish that consists of very thinly-sliced ham and melted cheese rolled in a flat, white bread, followed by Petto di Faraona Purea di Piselli e Tartufo, breast of guinea fowl on a bed of mushy peas in a truffle sauce. The first of these was pretty good--it's the staple diet of Sardinian shepherds, apparently--but the second was absolutely mind-blowing. If I was going to be executed in the Tower of London and had to chose a last meal, it would consist of this as my main course, preceded by the ravioli of lobster and langoustine from Gordon Ramsay and followed by the banana tart tartine with rum and raison ice cream from Christopher's. Almost worth dying for.
Be warned: tables at Assaggi are extremely difficult to get. Even ostentatiously dropping the Evening Standard's name, the earliest time slot I could secure was 9.30pm and when I arrived I was told I'd have to wait in the pub downstairs until a table became available. It isn't cheap, either. A meal for four, with two bottles of fairly inexpensive wine and only one pudding between us, came to £210.00. The acoustics are poor and the décor is what might be politely described as "Damien Hirst lite". Yet in spite of all these shortcomings, Assaggi is, without a shadow, the best Italian restaurant in London. If you have a spare evening next October, my advice is to book now.