Less is more: A simple fish dish

We’re almost a year late to the party here, but it’s always important to check whether a place has let itself go with age.

Opened last April, Rotorino, a pedigree restaurant from The Dock Kitchen’s Stevie Parle, was ripe for re-inspection.

Sparkling with dimly-lit retro booths and cherry wood galore, it’s the kind of place Don Draper might eat, minus all the smoking. But when it comes to the actual food, the muse is more Italian grandma than Mad Men.

That means southern Italian cooking made with a cocky simplicity, and a staff that get lessons in caring about it very, very much.

Rotorino has mastered the art of the super-knowledgeable waiter. If it wasn’t so very passé, you might go so far as to call them ‘passionate’.

Fresh from a wine tasting and on her way to a work-organised visit to a buffalo mozzarella supplier in Naples, our waiter was a study in restaurant ambassadorship.

From flavour to provenance to ‘Where did you get these enamel plates?’ there wasn’t a question that stumped her.

“It’s nice that they care. Because in Italy, everyone cares,” points out my companion, our food writer Gillian Riley, describing Roman lorry drivers who would fight to the death in defence of their mothers’ tomato sauce.

Mad Men decor: Rotorino's chic dining area
Mad Men decor: Rotorino’s chic dining area

Settling in with a glass of Valpolicella – or ‘Valpol’ to those in the know – we were seduced by many things, but all of our waiter’s recommendations were, no hyperbole, outstanding.

We took a chance on oft-maligned brussel sprouts despite Gillian’s aversion, born of a Yorkshire childhood marked by overboiled everything. But this dish managed to single-handedly bring Gillian on-side.

No chance of soggy green orbs here – these ones are raw, and shaved so fine you hardly notice them among chunks of finocchiona (fennel-cured salami), slivers of pecorino and a sprinkling of hazelnuts, bound by a magical dressing I daren’t try to deconstruct.

Two shared pasta dishes were exquisite in very different ways, the flavours in each so distinctive it was hard to believe the two plates had come from the same kitchen.

The mussel casarecce (tight, chewy coils of pasta) was described by Gillian as “the best pasta dish I’ve ever had”. Perfectly al dente coils of pasta with wet strings of salty agretti and fat mussels, it really did taste of the sea – a joy if you’re into that sort of thing.

In stark contrast, a petite but beautifully rich bowl of pumpkin gnudi, (‘nu-dee’) sat the other side of the incredibly-good-pasta spectrum. Basically ravioli without the casing (or ‘nude’), this flesh-toned set of glorious little globes swimming in a butter sauce, topped with crispy sage, is full of plump softness and indulgently rich. Both are really, really excellent. But every restaurant has its bloopers.

We went rogue with the last-minute addition of fried artichoke and viola squash from the ‘stove’ section. That was a mistake.

Ignoring all sense of proportion, a small, badly-cooked artichoke was plopped on an intimidating mass of whipped veg and apparently some farro, all lost in the mix. More than the depths of southern Italy, it evoked an overworked curry, or maybe even refried beans left over from a platter of nachos.

But this minor car crash was washed away with a homemade rhubarb ‘cello’ (as in limoncello, but without the lemon), and came with a lesson: in this era of hyper-educated restaurant staff, pay attention to what they don’t recommend.

Choice is the hidden enemy. Just let them order for you.

434 Kingsland Road, E8 4AA
020 7249 9081

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