By Cheryl Caira
London’s Holloway Road: close enough to Highbury & Islington station to have a decent buzz about it, but never a destination that conjured up terribly much culinary furore. However, a brisk five minute walk from the station and up towards Holloway Road tube reveals changed days, with craft beer hideaways, cosy pubs and an exciting new dining scene, with the most recent addition being Italian restaurant and home of pasta pizzazz, Berto.
Berto is the first venture into a pasta-focused eatery from restaurateurs Claudio Vescovo and Gianluca D’Angelo – the brains behind Zia Lucia, the popular gourmet pizzeria which watches over its younger sibling from next door. The pasta at Berto is handmade on site every day, with the option of traditional wheat flour pasta, wholemeal pasta if that’s your preference plus gluten-free options.
My friend is hopping between delayed trains, so I alternate sipping on a well-proportioned negroni with perusing the soothing rhythm of the open kitchen as the chefs zip around at work. The main restaurant floor is laidback in style, with the big communal table at the centre giving a distinct feeling of momma’s kitchen, with delicious scents and chatter surrounding you. If you want a front row seat on the sizzle and steam of your pasta crafting then you can sit at the inviting open counter with its Sixties-esque bar stools.
The restaurant’s team were trained by a friend of the owners, Piero, nicknamed ‘Berto’ – a pasta maker with a shop in the central Italian city of Ronciglione, who collaborated to make the restaurant’s style in pasta traditional-but-innovative. Starters are grouped into fritti, sauteéd veg, fresh cheeses and cured meats. It’s a strong line-up, dipping into quality ingredients from local delis and producers and hosting enough Italian hams that the antipasto box is satisfyingly ticked.
I wish I was at one of those lengthy Italian special occasion dinners where there are hours between courses and seemingly endless dishes being placed on the table, so that I could have a mini sample of everything – but alas, it is a dark London evening not an Italian festa, and we both have the last tube to make. So two dishes it is to kick off: Southern Italy’s pride and cheesy joy, burrata, and a trio of assorted fried veg. Mopped up with organic bread from Dalston’s Dusty Knuckle Bakery, the generous and delicious amount of olive oil and a sprinkling of peppery seasoning gives the burrata’s creaminess room to shine. The batter is crisp and light on the fritto misto, with enough moreish saltiness.
Pondering the pastas, we decide to opt for some classics. Chunky swathes of tagliatelle with slow-cooked beef ragu are a winner: every strand coated in a sauce that’s rich, earthy and tender. The tonnarelli square-cut spaghetti oft teamed with traditional Lazio dish, cacio & pepe, is perfectly plumped for a buttery, Pecorino accompaniment and a good hit of black pepper. A tagliatelle dish with rabbit white ragu, capers and black olives is an example of the inventive joust to the menu – one for the next time, possibly. A few glasses of Chianti washes it all down with aplomb and sends me down memory lane to a holiday in Tuscany’s Maremma coast, wine-tinged, happy and eating simple, Italian ingredients used to delectable effect.
Portions are pleasingly heartier than average, for the people in the room that don’t have an off switch when it comes to pasta (hand firmly raised) – so hearty, in fact, that as tempting as the starter options are, I would recommend pacing yourself. Dishes, considering their size, are very reasonably priced. The man sporting pasta for hair on the restaurant’s signage encourages you to “roll with it” – let’s hope Berto keeps bringing in the dough.