You can judge an Italian restaurant on the quality of its carbonara if you like, or the silkiness of its tiramisu, or the size of its pepper grinder. But I prefer to evaluate it by the celebrity photographs on the way to the loo. This is the hallmark of gastronomic authenticity from Piedmont to Puglia: a grainy image of Sylvester Stallone and his tour manager towering sweatily above six beaming brothers with broad mustaches and a crying child. It is not always crystal clear who the ‘celebrity’ is, of course; nor whether they even ate at the restaurant or were simply accosted with a carrier bag of lasagne out on the pavement. But the sentiment is undeniable and irrefutable. We are proud of our food. We are proud of those who eat it. We do not mind if they have been in Holby City, so long as they enjoyed the fritto misto.
This, undoubtedly, is the unique energy of London’s most beloved (and longest standing) Italian restaurants. Welcoming, familial, unpretentious, traditional, self-assured. They have not changed, because they don’t need to. Do you ask god to change the sunlight? Their food is elemental; their service generational. And they are rightly revered as national monuments — bigger even, if you can fathom such a thing, than Sylvester in his pomp. Here are five of the finest.
Franco's, St James's
Is it odd for an Italian restaurant to boast happily of its full English Breakfast? Not at Franco’s it’s not. Sprawled down in darkest St James’s, the handsome restaurant — broadly fronted, like a decent double-breasted blazer — has been plying its trade ever since 1945, so you’d expect a little Anglo-Italian borrowing. The navy old boys of Clubland adore it for the big, buxom breakfast, sure — a real setter-upper for a day’s gallivanting, sauna-ing, and ‘having opinions loudly near art’. But its acolytes also coo over the veal mac and cheese with morels and peas; or the silken, tomatoey lobster linguine, which has made the fortune of many a Jermyn Street dry cleaner.
Signature dish: Mushroom risotto, thanks.
Fun fact: They do a good old fashioned, properly loungey jazz night intermittently — where Ella Fitzgerald standards pair nicely with the veal cutlets.
La Famiglia, Chelsea
You know La Famiglia is good because the waiters have never left. Well into their seventies (though boasting the lithe, youthful hop-skip-parmesan of men half their age), these great masters of their trade — clad in an informal hierarchy of white blazers, blue waistcoats, and gold-buttoned jackets — are half the attraction here. I like to imagine that they’re all distant cousins, uncles, brothers-in-law, old school friends — an entire Tuscan village, perhaps, of attentive-yet-nonchalant mustache-bearers. Many of them can be seen smiling out at you from the family picture-frames that line the blue and white tiled walls inside, younger but the same. It’s outside, however — on that rarest of things, a decent London terrace — where you’ll want to book, of course. A super sun trap (head there on a Saturday lunchtime this summer and see if you can plough on through till supper service), it is painted gleaming white and festooned with chequered table cloths and folding Persols. Order Poretti (alla spina, of course), and plump for the rigatoni with gorgonzola. They’ll come round with the parmesan shortly, don’t you worry.
Signature dish: The vitello tonnato, or perhaps the arista al cinghiale (roast wild boar with rosemary, garlic and olive oil).
Fun fact: Bridget Bardot, Michael Caine, Peter Sellars and Princess Margaret have all been great admirers in their time.
Il Portico, Kensington
Il Portico is Piers Morgan’s favourite restaurant in London — which means he’s got a decent sixth career ahead of him as a restaurant critic should this whole Talk TV thing continue to haemmorhage viewers. Not that Il Portico is a place of divisive rhetoric or bad tempers however. Having been run by four generations of the Chiavarini family (making it London’s oldest family-run restaurant, by the way) this thoroughly authentic spot sweeps you off your feet with old fashioned courtesy and charm, before depositing you gracefully at a white-table-clothed idyll in its Kensington depths. Chef Eduardo has been overseeing the kitchen for 32 years, and all the produce (think wild game and foraged mushrooms) is sourced from the family farm in Kent, which is still run by the 81-year-old Chiavarini patriach, Pino.
Signature dish: Too many to name. But I’d go for the rigatoni stirred through with guanciale, egg yolk and pecorino romano — or as they call it ‘the real carbonara’.
Fun fact: James Chiavarini runs a podcast called Common Sanity, where “four free thinkers from differing political backgrounds meet for lunch at the legendary Il Portico restaurant in London….”
E. Pellicci, Bethnal Green
Behind every great restaurant is a great woman. E. Pellici’s particular matriach is Elide, who brought up seven children single-handedly whilst running the café below her flat after her husband died in 1931. She’s the ‘E,’ of ‘E. Pellicci’ — a name cast in the sort of pragmatic-yet-stylish san-serif chrome lettering that no branding agency could devise. Now the place is run by Mario Nevio, who took it over on her husband’s death in 2008 — he’d run it since Elide’s day. So there’s a genuine line of entirely Italian succession here, all the way back to 1900. The decor is ornately panelled in wood, having been carved by regular customer (and carpenter, useful) Achille Capocci in 1946. The whole place is Grade II listed now, and quite right too. Oh, and the food is lovely — proper East End caff fare, made with all the love and cheek-pinching indulgence of an Italian grandmother.
Signature dish: A slab of lasagne, please.
Fun fact: The Kray twins would eat breakfast here most mornings in the 1950s. “That place served the best food outside of your own mothers kitchen,” wrote Reggie Kray in the 2000 book ‘East End Stories.’ “And it still makes my mouth water at the thought.”
Scalini now has outposts in Dubai, Doha, Cannes, Riyadh, and Istanbul — the whole dot-to-dot of the new, chi-chi jet set, who must have sampled its charms down on Walton Street and thought they might snaffle some of this magic for themselves. But the Chelsea-Knightsbridge mothership is still the best, of course — a conspiratorial den where the fettucini with white ragu or the spaghetti with lobster sate the cheek-kissing classes in magnificent, un-changing style.
Signature dish: The veal milanese, of course — thick, tender, and spilling off the plate.
Fun fact: the Pugs Club, the ‘world’s most exclusive members club’, holds its yearly lunch at Scalini every summer.