I wanted to love Artusi. It has excellent credentials: well-reviewed by the exacting Jay Rayner, recommended by foodie friends, a reputation for unpretentious cooking and, most importantly, a tempting menu. Yet, on the day of my visit, it lacked the finesse to make the food truly memorable.
Set on Bellenden road, the gentrified counterpart to Peckham high street, Artusi is in close proximity to other stars of the area’s burgeoning food scene. Staff are gracious and friendly - allowing us to move tables, answering questions about the food, giving us time to pause before dessert. Décor is modest. White walls are unadorned except for a series of framed dishcloths, which display both an element of originality and thrift.
The pared-back setting is reflected in the food. A short blackboard menu is wiped and re-chalked as dishes change with the season and, when supplies run low later in service, with the hour. Evidently Artusi’s chefs subscribe to the worthy notion that is best to do a few things really well. On the Sunday lunchtime of our visit, the only choice was three courses for a reasonable £20 with two options for each course.
To start, there was a marriage of al dente broccoli and fiery ‘nduja, calmed by a swirl of straciatella. Not, as the child within me leapt to believe, the chocolate-speckled gelato, but a stretched curd cheese soaked in cream whose name translates as ‘to tear’. It takes a certain self-belief on the part of the chef to serve a dish that involves little cooking, but rather a knowledgeable combination of great ingredients. The gamble paid off in dividends of flavour.
Glasses of crisp, fruity white were delivered to the table, and then we were on to the mains. Chunks of tender, pink lamb neck, proper roast potatoes, wilted chard and yellow beans dressed in the meat juices. Spaghetti silky with olive oil, butter and a little reserved cooking water, and tossed with pancetta, peas, tomato and piles of Parmesan. There were no overcooked ingredients, nor any fussy plating; it was simply delectable.
Yet, delicious as it was, I couldn’t help but feel that an experienced home cook could recreate these recipes. Artusi’s unstudied approach also resulted in some small lapses, such as a serious lack of pancetta in the pasta - I counted just five pieces. With just a little more depth and delicacy, these dishes could be elevated to more than the sum of their parts. Indeed, I have seen and read evidence of more complex cooking on other days, from roasted artichokes with bagna càuda to slow-cooked lamb ragù.
For dessert, there were three slabs of dense, dark chocolate cake with a salty biscuit topping to counteract the sweet, thick caramel coating. Even for a self-confessed gannet, three slices seemed excessive. The dish would have been lighter, but no less satisfying, had a slice been replaced by sharp fruit or, better yet, the mascarpone sorbet that was the other dessert option. Introducing an extra ingredient here would not have complicated, but rather complemented, the cake.
In avoiding intricate plating, extravagant menus and fashionable ‘superfoods’, Artusi puts the spotlight back on good ingredients. The food is undoubtedly tasty and often graceful, but on this occasion was sometimes too simple to really shine.