It’s 12.30pm on a Thursday, admittedly early for lunch, and already Zucca is filling up.
The crisp, autumn sunshine bathes the room in light, thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows.
The decor sets the scene for the menu: clean, simple, undiluted cooking, led by fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Zucca is a cross between the River Cafe and NOPI, at about half the price. Chef Patron Sam Harris did a short stint at the former several years ago and clearly took the inspiration with him.
And, it works. Zucca is part of the now uber-trendy Bermondsey Street, a narrow winding road in London’s East End, which, ten years ago, used to get visitors nearby only early on a Friday for the famous antiques market.
Now, the area is thriving with independent shops, boutiques and creative-types. Zucca feels like the perfect “grown-up”, but cool, place to eat around here. But the irony is a good part of the menu is actually rather home-style Italian, served up in a trendy package … which is why it made sense to invite a friend who grew up with two grandmothers (nonis, in Italian) trained to cook by their Italian Mamma’s.
The menu is divided into four short parts: Antipasti, Pasta, Fish and Meats, changing daily, though it seems some dishes make fairly frequent repeat performances, which is a good thing.
The first plate to arrive is a delicate sea bass Carpaccio, adrift in what tasted like chilli oil. This is truly one of my favourite kind of dishes – simple, pure ingredients presented beautifully, but without fuss, like a gift wrapped in plain brown paper and a raffia ribbon … you just know what’s inside is special. And it is.
The silken sea bass is punctuated by a slight salty-ness and fresh chillies, which never overpowers. And the portion was American-style … enough for two to share, which is lucky for my companion as I tend to get greedy when a dish tastes this good.
Our next starter is a Yotam Ottolenghi look-alike. A Moroccan style sweet and savoury stew of cauliflower, onions braised so long they are see-through, currants and toasted pine nuts are heaped on top of the creamiest dollops of fresh buffalo mozzarella I’ve tasted outside of Italy.
It is a delicious flavour pairing and seems to be on-trend at the moment. I recently tasted pomegranate seeds over burrata at another Italian restaurant and it worked, too, but Zucca’s dish ups the ante.
The last taste before mains is a home-made porchetta, cured with herbs, and served with sweet chutney, creating a great texture.
I’m not a pork eater, but my guest grew up on it, this will be the first big test of the meal. Pity the Italian restaurant that welcomes him for a meal. I sit on the edge of my seat, anxiously waiting for his reaction once he brings the thinly sliced meat to his mouth.
“Oh, wow,” is all he says. “Really? Is it that good?” is my reply. “Yes, it’s so tender. It melts in your mouth,” is the answer. So there you have it. The porchetta passes muster.
We are off to a good start, and the mains don’t let us down. The hake has a few too many bones in, but the salsa verde more than makes up for it.
Salsa verde, for me, is a perfect sauce…if you can even call it that. It’s a handful of fresh green herbs, olive oil and capers. It’s utterly simple and works well on almost any fish. We also ordered the veal with spinach. There was yet another, “Oh, wow,” when it arrives. It could be the fact that it has been cooked so perfectly, or that the bits of fat had caramelised…whatever it is, the dish is delicious.
There is a long list of tarts which sound like great marriages of ingredients, fig and almond, lemon and brown sugar, but we settle on the walnut cake. It will be the final bellwether on the homey front.
Fortunately, my guest’s grandmothers each had their own specialties: one was the better cook, the other, a better baker. Walnuts figured big in the latter’s kitchen. And so, yet again, I suck a deep breath in as he took the first forkful, and I ask, “So…how is it?” “Gosh, it tastes just like my grandmother’s.”
Relief sets in, and I know Zucca has passed the hardest test.
For Italians, food trumps all. I haven’t mentioned the service, but should. It was warm, and attentive. But more importantly, they can cook just like Noni.
184 Bermondsey St
+44 (0) 20 7378 6809