South-west Londoners will have over the years become accustomed to seeing Valentina’s dark blue storefront, which promises authentic Italian food at semi-reasonable prices.
Their new location, which opened in October, is a modest addition to Chiswick High Road; significantly smaller than its Putney cousins.
Upon entering the deli-cum-restaurant immediately impresses with its intricately stacked displays of panettone and biscotti, of which there are several varieties available for sampling. Cured meats and cheeses whisper seductively from behind the deli counter. The shelves of wine are many. Hung from the ceiling are bouquets of chilli and garlic, providing colour and warmth.
The restaurant area is tucked in the back of a narrow space, and manages to feel intimate rather than cramped, cossetted by the visuals of the entrance and the aromas wafting from the kitchen adjacent. Cozy. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable, each a sommelier in their own right, and are keen to explain the origins of each bottle (over two hundred on hand) as well as what dish to pair it with.
We order two starters, and the first, a selection of mushrooms, olives, and artichokes, is excellent. Perhaps the olive oil marinade is vying most effectively for our attention, but this is not unwelcome – it is the real thing. And we have much time to admire it, as its antipasti associate arrives an astonishing twenty minutes later. It is Timballo, a delicately layered tower of creamy butternut squash, steamed spinach, a round of goats cheese, all topped with a plump sun-dried tomato. Unfortunately it is lukewarm and has clearly been left out waiting, upsetting the texture of the spinach, the gentle melt of goats cheese already congealing.
When our mains arrive, it is again longer than is reasonable. The presentation of the dishes however, continues to shine: My friend has selected the Cappella Romana, a dome of tagliatelle, meatballs and mozzarella, draped in Speck ham, soaked in rich tomato sauce. I am brought the swordfish, adorned in a humble puttanesca. Both are very generous portions.
The fish itself is enigmatic, at once all briny succulence and very tender, no strenuous chewing here. Yet the livornese sauce is decidedly unobtrusive and bland, while the olives are the rubbery pitted sort you find in cans in the supermarket. The capers add much needed bite, not too acidic, and burst hospitably, a welcome contrast to the green beans, which are limp and without flavour.
For desert I order the lemon sorbet, which is served in a lemon shell of its own zest, again very authentic. It proves a fine palate cleanser, though the citrusy notes are muted. The tiramisu my friend orders is better; light and silky, and served incongruously in what seems to be a coffee mug. Its quality is unassailable however, and the receptacle should not matter. If anything it is a little charming.
We wander through the deli afterwards, and I find a box of Baci, a brand of Italian chocolates uncommon to London, that my parents adore. Further, they stock bottarga, a dried roe condiment popular in Sardinia, as well as a staggering range of pastas, including the classic squid ink-black spaghetti and the unassuming but always superb porcini tagliatelle.
So, while I was unimpressed with the uneven quality of the food, and the appalling waits between courses even on a relatively quiet night, I would recommend Valentina, if only for the wide range of artisan ingredients available.
By way of a disclaimer, I should mention that we ate at the East Putney location of Valentina Fine Foods – a half hour walk from the new Chiswick branch. The staff did not know we were coming, and so surmised we must have come to the wrong location. It was hard to divorce this incident from the prevailing sense of disorder and confusion.
words Loren Harway