If it were not for my predilection for the lip smacking coffee creaminess of tiramisu, its simple decadence, I would probably have passed on Pastaio. There were other places to visit, as there always are, and I had begun to feel like my palate was becoming too used to Italian cuisine. But I’d heard whispers of their tiramisu, also of their fresh pastas deftly prepared, and decided to head over to their spot down by Carnaby Street.
At first, I’d ignored the pictorial bombardment of Instagram influencers, as well as a soft-opening invitation sent not too long ago, but on one particular day, craving sugar and mascarpone, the thought of tiramisu sounded oh so good. So, yes, a relatively new restaurant by Stevie Parle, one without reservations, seemed as good a place as any to give in, and have an early lunch date before the rush. Maddy also happened to be down for the weekend. I hadn’t had too many other vegetarian options on my list, but knew I could always count on pasta to aid acquiescence.
I am not one for desserts but a good one at the end of a meal can be a wondrous finale. I am partial to chocolate delice, plain dark chocolate truffles on occasion, but with tiramisu, if it is on a menu, any menu, I am almost compelled to have some. Mascarpone, check, Espresso, check, Rum/Kahlua/Crème de cacao/ Baileys, check, ladyfingers and cocoa powder, check and check: all ingredients I enjoy immensely and when put together, fastidiously and in-keeping to tradition, achieve palatal transcendence.
Admittedly, this last experience is a rarity. In fact, this vision of ethereal tiramisu might only have come to me in a dream. But I have come close, tasted iterations that have made me smile with my eyes closed. The last great tiramisu I had was at La Tagliata Fitzrovia, and I do endeavour to go back for some in this new year.
The tiramisu at Pastaio was nice. Velvety mascarpone with the perfect floating lilt, biscuits well soaked, soft, silky, giving way to the spoon almost as easily as the cheese, and a perfect sprinkling of cocoa powder which balances the sweet with its dry bitterness. It is also a pretty dish, pleasant to look at in its simplicity. No nudge of coffee tinged alcohol though. If there was one it was too subtle for my taste. Or maybe I was too distracted by the three waiters hovering over us like white shirted gargoyles.
We’ll get back to this, but for now let’s discuss first impressions.
Bright with white walls, marble tables, low hanging lights, an open kitchen, with most of the staff in white too, Pastaio makes clever use of contrasts, lifting the mood of those who’ve walked in after a wet, torrid time in the dreary London grey. Yes, it is quite pristine in there with the décor’s minimalist pretentions and cleanliness, almost like a laboratory or a pimped-out prison cafeteria. But before your eyes adjust to the relative duo chrome, the wall opposite the Pastaio kitchen, at the far end of the restaurant, hits you in the face with its vibrant technicolour. It was a wall covered in a singular piece of modern art, very geometric; I liked it. It was well thought out.
Except for the shared tables. It’s all well and good sitting almost shoulder to shoulder with strangers until you’ve got to tuck your elbows in because you’re squeezed up against Andre the Giant, or want to speak offensively about politics, or religion, or bad mouth the service or the food. I think when the idea was conceived the perky contriver must have envisaged a large group of strangers bonding over great food in an atmosphere akin to an Italian tavern in Bologna where everyone vaguely knew who everyone was, where they worked and whether they were cheating on their wife, or husband. At Pastaio it was more than a little inconvenient.
The colours that encompass you at Pastaio, or lack thereof, do bring an accentuated focus onto the food, especially if the fried sandwich that is placed in front of you looks burnt as all hell. I didn’t even remember ordering a fried sandwich so I was doubly unhappy. As it turns out I hadn’t fully read the dish’s description. I made it only as far as ‘fried mozzarella’ before deciding to make an order, envisaging some intriguing take on mozzarella sticks that incorporated nduja and honey. Unfortunately, not.
Instead it was a fried sandwich of mozzarella, nduja and honey, which came to me looking like a hellhound’s tongue overdone beyond redemption. I’ve made many a grilled cheese, ones predominantly made with sourdough, occasionally with the addition of chorizo, so I do have a good idea of what the sandwich is supposed to look like. Sourdough does lend itself to charring, and with oily chorizo in the pan, to a crimson reddening, but it only turns black when its either left in the pan too long, or has been cooked in one that’s dirty and caked in burnt residue. I turned the sandwich over and it was done alright, so it must have been the prior.
I hailed a waiter and politely suggested that the sandwich was overdone. But the unbridled gall of the man asserted outright, attracting the attention of my table-mates, that it was not burnt and that it was how the sandwich is served at Pastaio. Taken by surprise, I prodded at the thing with my fork, flipped it over and back again, and then asked him if he still thought it was not burnt. He persisted and this time with a patronising air and charitable smile on his face that made me want to…be impolite. ‘If you think it’s burnt’, he said, ‘or are unhappy with the way it is cooked. I’m sure our chefs would do a special one for you. The reason it is black is because of the caramelisation of the ingredients on a hot pan.’ Tight lipped, I nodded and told him that replacement would not be necessary. If this is how it was to be eaten, I’d eat it.
The sandwich did not taste as bad as it looked, but it was not good by any stretch. A few taps around the edges let the ashen crust fall off, leaving the bitter taste of burnt toast to be merely confined to the uppermost layer of the bread slice – some consolation. The soft consistency of the nduja is too close to that of the melted mozzarella to provide any notable textural contrast. There is flavour but the whole dish leaves much to be desired. Plus the plate just looked bad. A shoddy looking burnt toastie in a plate without garnish is much akin to something whipped up by an eight-year-old.
I pushed my plate away after a few bites, and only a few moments later, was visited by the manager like a child by a concerned teacher. ‘Did you not like the dish sir?’, he asked tentatively, as if he was not quite sure why he was there but had been notified by his sentinels as to my dissatisfaction. ‘Would you like another?’. God no, is what I wanted to say, but ‘no, thank you’ came as a result of my good breeding.
The bread and oil that we ordered in addition, intrigued by the ‘coombeshead’ descriptive on the menu, offered simply bitter dense bread with much better olive oil. Light, velvety, almost floral, the oil turned the dense crusted chunks of bread into bits worth consuming. Needless to say, when the oil was done so was our interest in the dish.
I know, I know, I’ve painted a rather dreary picture of Pastaio so far – except of course for my thumbs up for the tiramisu – but the appetisers were the worst of our time at the restaurant. Unsurprisingly the people that visit Pastaio are there for the pasta and I think they are rewarded for their interest, more than less.
The cacio e pepe, a mess of firm bucatini in an indulgent peppery pecorino sauce; the grouse, rabbit and pork agnoli, filled with a mild minced mush in a gloriously unctuous pond of fat; and the wild mushroom and garlic tagliatelle, the most mediocre of the lot, over-herbed and forgettable, were the three we tasted. I enjoyed the agnoli, and the first few bites of the firm bucatini, but found everything in summation to be too rich. Maddy was not impressed either. But I do concede that if we’d ordered the marjoram rigatoni or the pesto cassarecce instead of the tagliatelle I’m sure we would have been much better off.
In any case, not much regard seems to be afforded to plating at Pastaio. There plates demonstrated little to no finesse, and were made worse by the fact that nearly all of them we ordered were coloured on the spectrum of light yellow to a brownish hue; colours that remind you of jaundice and other undesirable afflictions. Maybe it was some misguided attempt at fashionable rusticity, but it seemed to me more like when a barber cuts your hair wrong and then says at the end, ‘I thought you wanted the bed-head look.’ Not quite.
I very much doubt I’ll visit Pastaio again. From the hovering staff to the food that does not live up to the noise, the experience at this new Italian restaurant is one that I’d definitely chalk down to an A.A Gill 14/20. It shall be easily forgotten. And though it was tedious to write about at first, in the end I realise I rather enjoyed myself.
Pastaio -19 Ganton St, Soho, London W1F 7BN
Anti Pasti £2.50-£9.50; Pasta £6.50-£12.00 ; Desserts £2.50-£6.00