There is no better endorsement towards an independent restaurant’s quality than to look in and see it full every night. Granted, in the case of large corporate chains popularity can be a deceptive indicator of good product, but for small places, family owned establishments or restaurants with a sister or two, a consistently packed house is usually a good sign. These are places where most critics will give the benefit of the doubt: if the food is bad they leave the restaurant off the page, and if good, exhort them to high heaven. Even the most sophisticated palates prone to the odd sneer or guffaw at the smallest faulty detail, will show restraint when visiting restaurants more humble and unassuming. Though these may have ambitions of grandeur, their foundation laid in cooking good food, having a comfortable attractive décor, and providing diligent, timely, friendly service is enough to get any regular customer hooked and warrant another critical standard.
In places like La Pappardella perfection is something to slowly build towards rather than an object of obsession to certain chefs and restauranteurs who do not appreciate the simple things. All of us know at least one place like this, where, after a long and hard week you seek the kind of repose only home cooking can bring. The portions here are large and affordable, the setting intimate and homely; the staff know your name and welcome you like family. Despite never having eaten at La Pappardella before, this is how the restaurant made us feel.
A large part of our positive first impression of La Pappardella was due to our server Giovanni, who, from the time we entered through the framed glass doors, looked after us with a cheerful smile and attentive mindfulness. His euphonious Italian accent with the odd Italian phrase slipping into conversation made not only for a sense of authenticity but also contributed that ‘mi casa es tu casa’ mood that seemed to permeate throughout the restaurant. Brick finished walls with mounted barrel bottoms and pictures of Italian boxers; light bulbs glowing through glass jars; comfortable well-placed furniture; and an overall dining space that was small enough to be animated by chatter and laughter without need of ambient music to lull you into relaxation.
Instead of forcing his opinion on to us – as so often happens in restaurants these days – our server at La Pappardella asked us politely if we required any help navigating through the copious menu, to which we simply asked for more time. Graciously given, we eventually settled for a starter and three mains, with full-knowledge we’d probably have to take something home in a box; an observation made by surreptitiously peeking at the tables around us.
We did not have to wait long for any of our courses despite the busyness of dinnertime. Our fresh chopped tomato and basil topped bruschetta, gently garlicky and possessing a pleasing crackle, came almost as soon as our water was poured for us. Since there were three slices of bread, Maddy and I fought for the third, indiscriminately tossing tomatoes all over our plates which were eventually mopped up by the bits of crust we had left over.
The gnocchi quatro formaggi, a yielding buttery potato pasta in a moreish four cheese sauce is the kind of magical dish that makes you shake your head with orgasmic disbelief. Creamy and rich, the well-balanced combination of pecorino, parmesan, swiss edam and effulgent gorgonzola stretches off the plate as your spoon ascends to your mouth, and once in, dissolves with gratifying warmth contrived for cold winters. The pappardelle della casa tossed with both full and de-shelled sweet scampi in smooth tomato sauce, had that reminiscent sea saltiness of properly integrated seafood. Squeezing the juices out of the umami saturated scampi over the gorgeously al dente pappardelle, added that extra bit of intense flavour that completely bowled us over. Both pasta dishes were absolutely delicious, each demonstrating contrasting characteristics that seemed to stop each from reaching levels of irredeemable excess.
By the time our burratina pizza arrived we were already slouching in our seats, rubbing our bellies with droopy eyelids and contented grins on our faces. But the power of its aroma when placed before us gave us second wind and we were able to manage a couple of slices before asking for the rest to be boxed up. The base was thin, flame-pocked and occupied the sweet spot between soft and brittle. The subtle flavours in the textural menagerie of creamy burrata, wild mushrooms, roasted cherry tomatoes and a sprinkling of parmesan completed an utterly supreme vegetarian pasta. Since Maddy finished off the leftovers before I woke up the next morning, only she could tell you how scrumptious it was for breakfast.
Giovanni accompanied us to the door as we rolled ourselves out. I cannot remember what exactly was said as we left, but I remember us laughing before conveying our thanks. It felt like we had known each other for years, that the food we’d eaten were dishes we knew well, cooked with care and particular attention to our preference. La Pappardella reminds you what it feels like to eat food in which love is a central ingredient, where finesse is a mere side note and hearty belly-hugging flavours take centre stage. It is truly the kind of dining experience that caresses you on lonely nights and elevates the joy of good company.
253 Old Brompton Rd, Kensington, London SW5 9HP
Starter £4.10-£14.80; Pizza and Pasta £7.50-£18.50 ; Mains and Specials £13.50-£22.00; Desserts £2.50-£7.50