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As restaurant titles go, ‘mozzarella bar’ is up there with ‘taqueria’ and ‘noodle joint’.
It sounds frivolous, niche, unforgivably extravagant. If the night starts at a mozzarella bar, where on earth does it end?
Obicà – which has rebranded since it first opened as ‘Obika’ – has several well-heeled, sleek restaurants across London. Yes, they have mozzarella bars within them. But Obicà is much broader than its niche subtitle implies, more warm hearted than its shiny interior suggests. They’re going after the city boys, but not by sacrificing the essential generosity of the Italian dinner table.
It’s the type of Italian restaurant everyone can enjoy. We sit down for dinner al fresco at Obicà St Paul’s, just opposite City Thameslink station. In the golden sunlight of early evening, the location makes sense: tables sprawl across the wide pavement, all of them occupied, each balancing bottles of Peroni and wine.
Within minutes we’re faced with the antipasti platter. There’s decent bruschetta with a fragrant dollop of chopped tomato. Thick paste-like pesto coats the flatbread, the pecorino cheese much stronger than you’d expect and all the better for it. And that bread is excellent – crisp, supple and redolent with flecks of oregano, it cracks audibly and easily between your fingers.
All the big players make an appearance. Prosciutto crudo di Parma is exactly as you’d expect, its wet clinginess a testament to its freshness. Grilled artichokes bring a welcome tartness. Black olives are indeed black olives.
It’s all a bit spartan. There’s a restraint here which feels somehow un-Italian; the antipasti is fresh, and the produce obviously of good quality, but it feels as though something is missing.
Fortunately, the burrata – the creamy heart of mozzarella with a gorgeously gooey, semi-liquid interior – steals the show. My partner hasn’t tried it before, and when it finally arrives midway through our antipasti board, I’m wearing that smug you’re-gonna-love-this grin.
Press the blade of the knife along the crown of the bulbous, peach-like burrata, gently pull the outer layer of cheese until you reach the viscous lagoon of cool white creaminess within. Together with the juicy burst of a yellow piccolo tomato and a savage crunch of rocket, it’s the kind of culinary moment for which you close your eyes.
“This mozzarella di burrata was finished yesterday, flown overnight from Italy and served to you today. It is even fresher than the burrata they serve in Italy” our waiter explains. Judging by the moist, silky texture, I am more than happy to take his word for it.
Service is as chatty and hospitable as you’d hope from an Italian restaurant. Despite the fact that Obicà is a chain with global pretensions, it retains that Italian family feel all the way down to the tabletop. Waiters catch your eye, toss a remark or two your way, quick to smile and to tell anecdotes about their food.
It’s speedy, too. We’re still murmuring about the mozzarella when our pizzas arrive. They’re hearty affairs – big crusty ridges accented with fine grains of flour and pockets of air, overlooking great pools of freshly-melted mozzarella and foothills of salami sausage. This is obviously the result of teamwork between a wood-fired oven, a fistful of ‘00’ flour and some proper pizzaolos.
My n’duja e burrata (yep, I’ve gone for the burrata again – and if they had it on the dessert menu I would’ve happily complete the hat-trick) is impressive, although now that good pizza is pretty common in London it’s not quite as spectacular as it once would have been. My partner’s salsiccia e pepperoni version features some smoked mozzarella, lending it an earthy, woody taste which amplifies the flatbread’s richness.
Whereas the choice and freshness of ingredients is ambitious, the scope of the menus is timid. The dessert menu, where you might hope to encounter one of Italy’s less-notorious but utterly magical treats, could have been plagiarised from Zizzis. You can guess what’s on offer without even looking.
But wait. Tiramisu might be tired these days, but here at Obicà it’s resurrected into a thing of beauty. Chosen on our waitresses recommendation (‘Trust me, it’s the best thing on the menu’) it’s a full-blooded knockout blow of a dessert.
Arriving in a deep, imposing bowl like a family-sized trifle, the tiramisu wears a thick helmet of rich cocoa, perhaps an inch deep. Stab this chocolate patina with your fork until you reach the cool sponge within, redolent with amaretto and perfectly grainy.
It’s a delicious, edible reminder than when it comes to the traditional Italian classics, Obicà have serious clout. They’re not as radical as when they first burst onto the scene a few years back, but Obicà still deliver Italian food well above the average. And they have a mozzarella bar, which until someone comes up with a Cheddar Snug concept will remain London’s foremost social venue for cheese-eating.
5-7, 4 Limeburner Ln,
Tel: 020 3327 0984