The evening before visiting Al Dente I dine at a three-Michelin-starred restaurant, one of the most celebrated in the world. It’s the type of place where the amuse bouche has its own amuse bouche, and each course is a miniature art installation that lasts about three bites.
As you can tell, three-Michelin-starred restaurants are largely wasted on me; of course I like great food, but I prefer simple, great food, ideally simple, great food that comes in three courses – you know where you stand with three courses – and portions that don’t let their pursuit of quality negate the value of quantity.
I knew I’d love Al Dente from the off. For one thing, I like it when a restaurant specialises in a dish because a) it’ll probably be quite good at this speciality and b) it limits the menu, which makes ordering a far less traumatic experience than frantically scanning 40 different options, trying to decide which to order and which to subsequently regret not ordering when my eventual choice lets the side down.
Al Dente specialises in pasta, but not just any pasta. Al Dente’s pasta has a convincing case for being the best pasta in London. It’s handmade every morning in the kitchen downstairs, using flour imported from Italy – most ingredients hail from the mother country. This makes Al Dente not only a pasta restaurant but also a pastificio – a pasta laboratory.
Pumpkin ravioli arrives as golden parcels gleaming with butter, sprinkled with pecorino cheese
“You can taste the ingredients are from Italy,” says the Italian friend I invite along. “Yeah, these are definitely Italian ingredients that I am eating.”
The interior somehow manages to be both stylish and homily, if that isn't a contradiction in terms. Everyone sits around this large grey table in the middle of the room – there are also a few seats running along the wall – while the cooks do their thing in the open kitchen. Even if the pasta was average, it would be a lovely place to while away an evening. (Another thing about three-Michelin-starred restaurants: they don’t do ‘while away’; more ‘stand on ceremony’. I practically had to salute the soup course.)
Inside the pastificio
Of course the pasta isn’t average: the pasta is incredible. Pumpkin ravioli arrives as golden parcels gleaming with butter, sprinkled with pecorino cheese. (Al Dente uses the same pecorino as Rome's legendary Felice restaurant.) It looks like the sunrise in a dish and tastes as fresh as the morning – hardly surprising, considering it was merely flour a few hours earlier. The texture is as firmed and toned as Paolo Maldini’s torso – well, you can’t name your restaurant Al Dente and then serve up something soggy, can you?
My friend went for the spaghetti carbonara, and if anything it’s even better. (In a place that prizes simplicity, ordering one of its simplest dishes is never a dumb move.) Thick strands of spaghetti slathered in egg and pecorino, neither of which obscure the punch of the guanciale. “Not too heavy – it’s just that right perfection of creamy” is the Italian verdict. She also says anywhere that uses bacon rather than guanciale in its carbonara is automatically suspect.)
Have a box of the finest, freshest pasta brought to your office every lunchtime
I’m not really a pudding person these days – growing older sucks – but the tiramisu is fantastic, and absolutely worth ensuring you have room for. There’s also cannoli, a traditional Sicilian dessert that’s basically a filled tube of fried pastry. See ‘em off with an Amaro Montenegro digestif. Precede that digestif with one of the wines supplied by Antinori, an Italian wine company that can trace its history back to 1385.
Can’t make it to the site? Fear not: Al Dente also does deliveries – indeed pasta to go is the primary business model. (When you see the size of the place you’ll understand.) You can have a box of the finest, freshest pasta brought to your office every lunchtime – and nothing on the menu exceeds a tenner. (A fact indubitably not true of the three-Michelin-starred restaurant – or even most one-Michelin starred restaurants.)
Owner Filippo Gallenzi may be a mere 25 years old but he's created something to be celebrated on Goodge Street. I'll be going back there soon.
For more info, see Al Dente