My heart sank; this wasn’t what I had in mind while trawling the web for central London Italian food. My vision had been of a warm establishment, it’s walls and floors flushed with a Tuscan terra cotta hue, a pleasant, sentimental and noisy place, slightly rough around the edges. Instead we stepped across Latium’s threshold to be greeted by a swath of cool black and white, a demure dining room, and the kind of service that make you clutch your wallet in apprehension. (Always beware when referred to in the third person, i. e. ‘can I take Madam’s coat. . . . if Madam would like to step this way.’) Fortunately, I was having dinner with my dad so my wallet could rest easy.
Once we were seated and equipped with bread and menus, I began to warm to the place. The olive oil was mellow and silky smooth, decidedly not rough around the edges. Examining the menu I could see why Chef Maurizio Morelli had a reputation for ravioli. The man was clearly obsessed, with an entire menu given over to these diminutive parcels, from a selection of four fish ravioli with sea bass bottarga to ox tail ravioli with celery sauce. We ordered and within moments were presented with a bowl of olives and plate of little morsels arranged on thin rounds of bread. Exhausted and hungry after a long week I popped a salmon topped specimen into my mouth.
Now admittedly, I’m a bit of a bread geek—a nerd on the subject of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and a critic of crumb and crust. After all, I am writing a masters dissertation on the subject. However, when it comes to an empty stomach, to daily hunger and the need for sustenance, I’m not unreasonable. Yet it is thoroughly disappointing to be given a luscious slice of salami or succulent sliver of fish a top a piece of dry, tasteless, crustless crap. Why do restaurants do this? Why do so many otherwise laudable chefs focus their passion and skill on gorgeous creations and then ruin the effect with bad bread? Why skimp of such a fundamental food? Unfortunately Latium was another example of this depressing phenomenon.
From this low point however, our experience shot skyward. My starter, ravioli stuffed with swiss chard, walnuts, taleggio, and marjoram, was utterly lovely. The pasta was as delicate as fine lace, cocooning its sumptuous filling. Too often ravioli is heavy, oozing gut clogging gobs of cheese. Not so at Latium: biting into the center of pale envelop, the center was mysterious, its components distinct yet dancing harmoniously together with just enough taleggio to leave your appetite undimmed. My dad’s starter was equally impressive: an invigorating and intricate salad of raw wild sea bass, Sardinian artichoke, blood orange, and chives.
For mains I chose the sea bass, pan fried with eggplant, ginger sauce, and olives ensconced on a bed of tangled monk’s beard (a relative of chicory whose green shoots make a brief and glamourous appearance each spring). The fish looked structured and fleshy on the plate, yet flaked into tender layers on the tongue. And I could have eaten a whole bowlful of the monks beard, so full of vim and vigour gathered from it’s dense, early spring soil.
We hadn’t intended to have dessert, yet when we eat together, my dad and I are know known for restraint. So when the menus arrived we gave in. “Apparently,” I mused speculatively, “Apparently it’s a sin not to try the tiramisu in a good Italian restaurant.”
“Well then,” Dad grinned, “I’ll have the selezione di formaggi. Don’t tell Mum.”
“Our secret,” I promised, conveniently forgetting that Mum had told me specifically not to let Dad eat cheese.”
I wanted to taste the cheeses. But when the tiramisu arrived, I lost track. In fact, for the time it took me to eat the tiramisu, I forgot about everything else in the universe. It was just me and this round circle of perfection beaming ardently up from its bowl. First there was a layer of bitter cocoa like ebony snow blanketing a fragile, faintly sweet cream. Excavating below that was the espresso soaked sponge, shooting through the cream and chocolate with it elegantly boozy bite, wrapping the whole into one outrageous blossom of a taste. Perhaps there was another layer, but I can’t be sure. By the time I dug that deep into my tiramisu I’d lost my reason. It was a good way to end the evening.