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Words: Chris Zacharia
“What are the two things in life everybody loves?” says owner Aaron. “The answer is food and sex”
Welcome to Gola, an Italian restaurant where everything is about excess. Bottles of Dom Perignon decorate the toilets. The mirrors are adorned with pearls. And every ingredient on the menu, according to Aaron, is an aphrodisiac.
“When I started out, I wanted to bring the flavours of Puglia, my home, to London” Aaron explains. “As I researched my region’s cuisine, I realised – all of our foods are aphrodisiacs!” he laughs. “I thought, ‘That explains a lot’. So then I knew how I would make my restaurant different”.
Sure enough, Gola is different. It’s recognisably an Italian restaurant, but with the dial turned up to full volume. It’s a loud bugle-call, summoning all of the energies which make Italian food great, in a festive atmosphere of which any Italian household would be proud. Aaron might boast that his menu is the sexiest in London, but what he’s actually achieved is even greater: fabulous, stonkingly good Puglian cuisine, without any of pomposity or fancy airs.
It’s a tight squeeze inside Gola, with tables jammed in the corridors and next to the bar. Covered in Italian bric-a-brac – upturned Disaronno lids, carabinieri toy police cars, Chianti bottles – the walls feel as if they’re collapsing in on you in an avalanche of memorabilia. A roaring atmosphere of locals having fun, many on first name terms with Aaron, ties it all together in a welcoming fug.
Gola means ‘gluttony’, and the menu assiduously lists the rest of the seven deadly sins with accompanying notes, presumably written by Aaron. Heavy-handed concepts are usually a warning sign, but Gola exceeds its own ambitions. It’s a fitting home of gluttony, for the food is irresistible. When it veers away from ‘very good’, it is only to reach ‘excellent’.
Each of the starters Crimson folds of carpaccio surround a milky mound of mozzarella di burrata, itself crowned with a purple marigold and perpendicular spearheads of asparagus. On the rim of the plate, a starscape of yellow mustard dollops form a slipstream.
The whole thing is artfully arranged to look like a flower, with the burrata in the centre and the rose-pink carpaccio forming the outer petals, and for a few moments we skirt around it, reluctant to disturb what could be an Italian Renaissance masterpiece. Once we do, we’re greeted by a riot of fresh flavours: delicate swirls of savoury beef, the arboreal crunch of baby spinach leaves, the gooeyness of the perfectly fresh burrata.
It’s followed by a less traditional but equally successful battered cod. A translucent, crispy batter, the kind many chippies would kill for, enrobes meaty chunks of cod, shards of white fish gently sliding at the gentlest of prods with the fork. It’s accompanied by lively but somehow defiantly un-Italian mango salsa.
A stack of parmigiana completes our trio of starters. A dense mound of baked aubergines, held together by a thick tomato sauce and adorned with a thin sheet of parmesan cheese topped with a baked cherry tomato. The creaminess of the aubergines is threaded with the rich sweetness of tomato, the parmesan’s tanginess enlivening it all. It’s Italian comfort food with a deft, coy touch.
All of this, it turned out, was merely an insignificant prelude to the spectacular main course: homemade pecorino ravioli with pistachio in a white truffle and honey sauce. Every so often you come across a dish so well composed, so outrageously tasty, that every memorable mouthful is a journey of its own. This ravioli is sensational.
Delve into the peach-coloured sauce and scoop up a parcel of ravioli. Bite into the perfectly al-dente pasta, and marvel at how the fluffy pecorino forms a fugue of flavour with the syrupy honey and truffle jus. Every flavour is clearly discernable, and each adds to an even more brilliant whole. Sweetness, umami and savouriness all fuse harmoniously, leaving every taste bud screaming in rapturous applause. I’ve always been sceptical of truffle, in its usual guise of superfluous edible luxury, but here it is absolutely crucial. It makes the flavours sing.
Agonisingly lingering over each drop, we savour the ravioli with undisguised pleasure. Aaron drops by to see how we’re enjoying the dish, and it feels like being caught in the middle of something illicit. Maybe Gola’s philosophy of food and sex is coming true. With food this good, who cares where the boundaries of pleasure lie?
Our other main, a decent baked sea bass embellished with blood-red mounds of moreish ‘nduja sausage, is put together for us by the chef ad-hoc. We’d requested something with the Calabrian sausage – always a good sign of a kitchen’s willingness to experiment. We happily devour it, but without the moans of delight caused by the ravioli.
Dessert showcases the kitchen’s ingenuity in a different way. After all, Nutella-filled gnocchi in a sea of white chocolate and mascarpone is nothing if not playfully creative. The fibrousness of the potato doesn’t quite gel with the chocolate, but like children we’re left scooping every last drop with our spoons, so it’s doing something right.
“Full?” asks Aaron, a devilish twinkle in his eye. You bet we’re full, but more importantly we leave reminiscing over each dish, sighing over the sauces, debating the finer details as if we’d just emerged from an art exhibition. In short, we’re in love with this place. If this is what Aaron means when he speaks of the aphrodisiacs of Puglian food, then I agree – this is seriously sexy food.
787 Fulham Rd