Words: Chris Zacharia
There are many important things to look for when moving to a new neighbourhood.
A good local restaurant is one of them. Having grown up in Maidstone in Kent, a culinary wasteland dominated by Frankie & Benny’s, Zizzi’s and Nando’s, I’ll never take proper home-cooked food for granted.
Moving to Battersea in south London, I now have the opposite problem: how to sort through the countless restaurants around Lavender Hill and to find a good local. The kind of place you can drop in midweek without dressing up or booking a table.
Donna Margherita looks promising. It’s a five minute walk from my front door, serves traditional Neapolitan cuisine, and is owned by an actual person (Gabrielle and his family) rather than some middle aged men called Malcolm in Canary Wharf. Oh, and it’s getting excellent reviews.
Step inside, and the friendly local vibe hits full volume. Above and beyond your usual stereotypical Italian restaurant theme (chiaroscuros of Italian families making spaghetti), the dining room is overlooked by an ersatz Romeo & Juliet-style balcony. On top stands a table laid out for dinner, a bandolier of garlic and even a washing line with pantyhose and brassiere. A string of fairy lights illuminates the scene.
I spend most of my meal peering over my shoulder just to confirm – yep, there really is a fake balcony above me. I half expect a chorus of singers to come out singing That’s Amore.
So Donna Margherita feels like the kind of clichéd taverna which dominated British-Italian cuisine before the latest wave of stylish, minimalist pizza joints. But the food is far, far better, presenting a hearty medley of familiar and obscure Italian favourites.
Composed primarily in the Neapolitan dialect, the menu is concise without being curt. Chatty asides explain the restaurant’s gastronomic choices, from the benefits of al dente (‘it does not completely cook the starch…with many benefits for your health’) to their gradual adoption of organic food.
My starter, O’Fasul A’Messican (£6.95), perfectly demonstrates Donna Margherita’s strengths. It’s a thick, hearty borlotti bean stew, with chunks of sweet Neapolitan sausage and built on a base of shallots, celery and chilli. It’s the kind of dish you can imagine being served in a battered old Neapolitan tavern to folk who know their food; each molten mouthful is rich and comforting. There’s plenty of it, too – this portion could easily pass for a main. The dishes here are excellent value for money. As all good neighbourhood restaurants should be.
We pluck the mains from the specials menu, which on the night of our visit is full of temptations. I go for the Ravioli di Cinghiale (£12.95), homemade wild boar ravioli surrounded by a ring of mushrooms, organic Sicilian cherry tomato and a silky wild mushroom sauce. After the heaviness of the starter, the dense parcels of meaty pasta are perhaps a bit too rich, but the coppery tang of the wild boar makes for an enticing centrepiece.
My partner goes for another special, the Mezzo Pacchieri alla Pizzaiola (£14.50), thick tubes of pacchieri pasta adorned with strips of Rose Country rib-eye beef steak and torn streaks of burrata mozzarella. It’s a fanfare of great Italian flavours and tender British beef, with a zingy tomato and garlic sauce keeping the peace. Although not on the regular menu, but it’s a great demonstration of the kind of dishes this kitchen whips up.
Keeping with the local Italian vibe, we go for Cannoli di Sicilia for dessert. These crumbly little tubes of fried pastry dough, filled with cream, mascarpone and chocolate, are usually heavenly. Here they taste a little stale, the pastry lacking that buttery freshness which makes cannoli so irresistible.
While you get many of the perks of a plucky local restaurant, you also get some of the downsides. Our main courses keep us waiting for almost half an hour after our starters, so brush up on your conversational skills before you book a table. And while Gabrielle and the team are friendly and welcoming, the service can be pretty brisk.
Donna Margherita isn’t perfect. It’s rough around the edges, a little bit frayed, held together by string and prayer. But if that turns you off, you’ve missed the point. This place feels genuinely, genuinely Italian, as if it were lifted wholesale from its little plot of land in Lazio and dropped on Lavender Hill. You could eat very well here for under £20 a head, and pick up a couple of bottles of excellent wine (proudly displayed for sale across the walls) for later on.
No wonder locals swear by it – it’s a restaurant of which any neighbourhood would be proud.
Words: Chris Zacharia
183 Lavender Hill
Tel: 020 7228 2660