I am convinced that one of the best places to get to know a person is in the queue outside Padella.
You are in a line that is long and slow moving, stuck between the same people for the whole winding journey, and have nothing better to do than take in the bustling scene of Borough market or to meditate. If you decide to strike up a conversation with someone, and become that guy so un-British as to invade another person’s solitude or contribute to an ongoing conversation, then the worst that can happen is you have to pretend you have a phone call or get the message when they do.
If, on the other hand, you find someone willing to participate, someone who reckons you are worth a chat, then by the time you get into the restaurant you could have made a friend more valuable than most of those on your friends list. You will part politely at the door or be so well-acquainted that you might deem it suitable to sit together. If I am the one who started the discourse, I usually wait for the other person to make this decision – no hard feelings either way, each one just glad to pass the time.
I suppose for most people these days, long lines have this almost Pavlovian effect where phones are immediately brandished and fingers quickly set a-scrolling. Much to tweet, to post and to like, but a missed opportunity to socialise in the real world it is.
When visiting Padella with someone, you’ll find that the absence or presence of phones is a decent barometer for how well things are going. In any case, propriety and hunger almost assuredly ensures that your friend will not leave you in the line alone should things get stale, but then again, on second thought, some meals are just not worth the bad company.
It is a good thing then that I was lining up outside Padella with Maddy, my girlfriend. We have gotten used to waiting in lines and find it a good opportunity to catch up with all the goings on in ours and other people’s lives that we did not think important enough to discuss over the phone. Who got a butt lift? No way they’re still together? A baby at thirteen?! How is that sexist? Would you eat meat if I bought you a puppy? Two?
Yes, much to talk about, and agree to disagree upon.
We were not particularly hungry, only a little peckish. Early that morning we had spent some time and money indulging in the Borough Market fare: tasting cheeses and deli meats, drinking full fat Jersey milk from the bottle, scoffing baklava, and downing a few oysters over the span of four or so hours. After all that, I somehow managed to convince Maddy that we still had another meal in us. Judging by the anaconda coil of a queue outside Padella, I wagered that by the time we were seated inside we’d be hungry again – not quite true, but close enough.
I had been meaning to visit the restaurant for a little while now. I had first read about them in one of the late AA Gill’s reviews and thought it would be nice to sample what he thought was brilliant pasta. In his mind, if I am paraphrasing correctly, sauce on pasta is simply a pretty frock on an already beautiful woman: redundant if the chef is doing his due diligence. Apparently the cooks behind the bar at Padella were doing just that, but every time I walked past, and saw the ridiculous queues, I put it off for another time. AA wrote his piece sometime in 2016, two years ago now, so I wanted to see if these guys were riding on their reputation or actually deserved the crowds they enticed.
Maddy and I waited in line for over an hour. Thank goodness for the shade or I probably would not have made it in this unrelenting summer heat. It was loud too. Hordes of England fans heading for the Sweden game: painted, shirtless, shouting men and women with their pre-drinks clearly in, telling everybody in ear shot that the football was coming home.
Padella is a relatively small restaurant with a familiar open kitchen and bar up top with a few tables set up in the basement. If you want to sit on the main floor you can either sit at the metal bar on a stool observing the flamboyant tossing and stirring of the chefs beyond, or at the white marble opposite the glass windowed entrance. We sat at the one by the window looking out into a street, sun shining shyly at us through some fluffy clouds.
There are also a few tables set up outside. Three generations of a family were dining there as we settled in: grandparents, parents and two children with strips of tagliatelle and sauce smeared all over themselves. We could not help but admire the scene from our safe vantage point. A lot of families these days would not bother taking their kids to restaurants that required queuing up; it is just too much of a bother when they could walk in to a Jamie’s or a Bella Italia. But here we had parents willing to go through all the crankiness and mischief in the heat to have their kids eat some quality grub with them. These messy whippersnappers in their summer gear are the gourmands of the future.
The menu placed before us was tight and emanated an aura of specialty. You’ve got a few evidently vegetarian options followed by the ostensibly meaty, and a short list of appetisers in your burratas, crostinis, olives and breads that seem consistent with most Italianate menus these days.
The ragu and the tagliarini sounded the most intriguing to us at the time, and we popped on the gnocchi because it was another dish we both had our eyes on and both could have. We considered the pici with marjoram, golden garlic and lemon, even ruminated a little over the ricotta ravioli with sage butter, but after all the sampling in the market we had done prior, I did not think we could do justice to it all.
The beef shin ragu was a mess of soft shredded meat intermingled with sheets of perfectly cooked pasta. Al dente seems too vague, so I’ll say it was like biting into a thin slice of edam cheese: soft enough to eat without thinking, but just enough resistance to make it interesting. It was not the best ragu I’ve ever tasted, too much of winy tang for my liking, but the pasta itself and the meat besides deserved top marks.
Simple well-made tagliarini, generously portioned, looked the curls of goldilocks – albeit after a roll around in a herb garden. Pasta inundated with chilli flakes and crisp pangretata made for a textured mouthfeel. I had to miss out on the addition of sweet, rotund mussels which were adroitly recommended, but it was great as it was.
Finally, the gnocchi, yawn, felt like it was on the menu for the sake of being on there. Soft, slightly misshapen gnocchi that bathed in a murky, slightly grey looking nutmeg butter. Probably one the most sub-par gnocchis I’ve had, some pieces heavy others weightless, largely inconsistent and a chore to finish.
Padella is by no means the pinnacle pasta making, but it is rather close indeed and I think you would struggle to find better dishes for those prices (most dishes are under £12). Italian joints coming out today all have to offer handmade, gourmet, artisanal and fresh pasta since those are the expectations of the market; but very few are able to at rates that do not make you wince a little. For me, I would much rather avoid the line and pay a little more for pasta of a reminiscent quality elsewhere, but if you are new to London or simply enjoy the atmosphere of Borough Market, then waiting in line just adds to the experience of the pastaria.
Location: 6 Southwark St, London SE1 1TQ