I recall only two times in my life, so far, when Italian food has sent me stratospheric with culinary pleasure and appreciation. The first was when I visited Drogheria Della Rosa in Bologna where the lasagna was one of the most sublime things I had ever tasted. Second, when I ate at Ristorante Il Cantuccio Di Franco Maria Vincenza in the ancient town of Matera in the Basilicata region. Both restaurants wholly encompass what makes Italian food so fantastic; the principle of ‘less is more’.By using simple, local, fresh, seasonal produce they both create dishes that simply blow the mind, and the palette, of the diner.
I never imagined that I would have a dining experience that equalled either of those two, outside of Italy.
So, imagine my surprise when I embarked upon my first course at Highbury’s Trullo restaurant, and was immediately immersed into vivid and sumptuous taste memories of dining in those traditional Italian towns.
Having waited an age for a suitable reservation (they are proving a very popular destination), I had high expectations. There’s something about the psychological allure of a place that’s so damned busy you have to wait months for a booking. You simply beg and plead for it to live up to your expectations. The second we walked through the door however I knew we wouldn’t be disappointed. With a warm, welcoming reception from the hostess we were shown to our table. The décor is understated, but smart and comfortable – the sort of place you wouldn’t be worried about failing to impress someone important in.
The menu constantly changes, dependant upon what is available seasonally, so my habitual practise of studying a restaurant’s menu online for days in advance, closely analysing each dish and scripting my order in my head, was futile.Digging into the fresh, warm bread and oil on the table, my eyes danced hungrily over the menu as it was handed to me;focus darting in and out of the rich-looking choices available. I could barely contain my enthusiasm to get started when our delightful waitress came to take our order a couple of minutes later. I blurted out my order, which included the rib-eye steak as a main course. Unfortunately, moments after couriering our order to the kitchen the waitress returned, with a desperate expression. She approached me and began hurriedly apologising that they had ‘just run out of rib-eye’. My partner eyed me nervously across the table. In situations like this he’s normally forced to spring into defensive action on the part of waiting staff and restrain me from fiercely lobbing my toys around their establishment. Our waitress’s genuinely pleasant nature, and the fact that I would have been happy ordering any of the choices available, meant I remained good-natured and calm. I was actually quite keen to revisit the other options and make a decision all over again. (NB: I was not charged for my main course, which was exceptionally good form).
Foregoing a starter (in favour of a dessert at the end – my trademark ‘offset rule’) I watched, filled with envy, as my partner dug into a generous portion of ox heart slices with borlotti beans in a dark, velvety gravy. As is customary (and, frankly, only polite) I waited a maximum of ninety seconds before I launched my fork in the direction of his plate and pillaged his first course. It was divine. It was hearty (pardon the pun) and cosy, just perfect for a first course when you’ve recently come in from the freezing January air and are still trying to regain the feeling in your fingers.
Following on from that our primi courses arrived. Now, I must say that Trullo is (in traditional Italian style) very generous with their portions so as a word to the wise I would probably avoid eating too much before you go as you certainly won’t want to miss out when you’re there. We had both ordered the parpadelle with veal shin ragu. It looked as good as it smelt, and it smelt even better than it looked. Sprinkled with a fine dusting of parmesan this dish, out of them all, stood out as an absolute triumph. Having not personally partaken in heroin before, but having read and seen (in films) accounts of the sensation of the narcotic coursing through your veins spreading illicit pleasure through your entire being, I can only liken this dish to having the same effect on me as I imagine heroin would. The veal was so tender it simply melted in the mouth, the pasta was done to absolute perfection and the ragu was aromatic, rich and heavenly. I imagine that the waiting staff at Trullo have never before witnessed a plate of food be cleared with such haste and urgency.
Having believed that our primi courses simply couldn’t be surpassed, when our mains arrived there was an audible ‘coo’ from both of us. Our waitress had recommended the wet polenta with chanterelle mushrooms and spinach as an alternative to the absent rib-eye. I must admit that when she first suggested polenta I raised an eyebrow quizzically and was slightly apprehensive about it, but my word!, when the first forkful entered my mouth I had no doubt in my mind that she had picked me a winner. It was simply bursting with flavour and I slipped into a hedonistic trance whilst eating it. My partner had ordered the poussin, which came served with fresh herbs rubbed into its golden skin, and an accompanying pile of potatoes and green vegetables. When I eventually surfaced from my wet polenta trance I noticed that he had picked the bird clean. There wasn’t a scrap of meat left on the bones and he had the drunken expression of a satisfied man.
As our plates were cleared, the maître-de approached us to check how our evening was going. I’m certain that he must have been being kept up to date on the licked-clean plates returning to the kitchen accompanied by the most effusive compliments for the chef coming from our table. He talked to us about our dessert choices and recommended that we try the dessert wine listed on the menu. We happily obliged and ordered two glasses. As the desserts arrived it was almost as if my stomach had forgotten that it was already fairly full and my face lit up as a shimmering, golden, caramel pannacotta was delicately placed on the table in front of me. Ever the competitive soul, I glanced over to compare what my partner had ordered and, fleetingly, regretted my decision as a huge slice of blood red orange cake with vanilla icecream was placed in front of him. He looked up at me with wide eyes and an expression of excitement normally only reserved for small boys at Christmas time when they unwrap the coveted train set/bike/computer game. Having mastered the art of making the perfect pannacotta at home I’m often keen to try it out in restaurants, mainly to satisfy my own ego that I STILL make the best dessert I’ve tried, but Trullo really gave my homemade efforts a run for their money. Leaning over each others plates, my partner and I sampled each others desserts and decided that it was just too close to call between them which was better. They were both delicious.
Debriefing over a cup of coffee, we both found little, if no, fault at all with the entire evening. The staff had been perfect – just the right mix of helpful, characterful, pleasant whilst still remaining unobtrusive. The food had been mesmerising. It had taken us on a taste-memory tour of all of our favourite moments dining in Italy. It was all very, very, good indeed.Simple, and delicious.
After settling up the (very reasonable bill) and bidding the staff goodnight we ventured outside. Pulling our jackets tight around us to protect us from the cold night air, we enjoyed the warmth the food provided us inside our full tummies and chatted excitedly about how we would re-book at the first available opportunity.