Pellegrino Artusi was my sort of chap: an Italian writer who in 1891 penned La Scienza in cucina e l’Arte di mangiar bene (The Science of Cookery and the Art of Eating Well). He was a bon vivant, among the first of his countrymen to apply scientific method to recipe writing and a great supporter of the unification of Italy. Artusi’s project, to collect and codify recipes from the disparate territories into a single “Italian cuisine”, was a brave and arguably prescient political act.
Artusi has naturally been much on my mind as I courageously appraised Italian restaurants in two very disparate London territories, Knightsbridge and Peckham.
Toto’s is hidden in a mews off Walton Street in Knightsbridge. It has been there since little trattorias in mews were as hot as stripped brick walls are today, but earlier this year it was remodelled under the guidance of Silvano Giraldin, ex-maître d’ of Le Gavroche.
It’s an odd-shaped room, dominated by a louring, dark wood fireplace, but it opens along one side to a small and agonisingly discreet courtyard. This, I have to assume, is a tremendous draw on summer days because no lunchtime bookings are available for months, according to the website. Dinner, though, is available, and it is, frankly, excellent.
The remarkable thing about the menu at Toto’s is how unremarkable it is. There is nothing that could make even the most conservative diner raise the faintest eyebrow but – as you’d expect from a restaurant led by a legend in maître d’ing – nothing is going to be allowed to get in the way of an evening that runs like a speedboat crossing the Lido.
Beef carpaccio with black truffle was a gorgeously showy confection. Showered with a thick layer of fresh shavings and honking like a jogger’s sock it bespoke luxury in a way that enabled you to forgive the bill.
The vitello tonnato made me sad. It looked lovely on the plate but it seemed woefully small – I should make clear that it would be an ample portion for anyone else, I just wanted another 4kg of it.
As part of my Artusian investigation, I embraced the traditional inter-course of pasta. A bowl of fresh tagliolini with an intense dressing of chilli and cherry tomatoes was rammed with muscular lumps of crustacean. Casarecce pasta with pesto alla Genovese was, I’m sure, authentic but, to my taste, a little too much chlorophyll in one place; a crisp and dry fritto misto more than compensated.
At no point did our classically beautiful waiters produce an oversized pepper mill, though in true Italian restaurant tradition, the succulent cotoletta alla Milanese was still huge enough to hang over the side of the plate.
The happily named Artusi restaurant in Peckham is about as far from Toto’s as you can go and remain under the umbrella of Italian food. The menu structure is similar, but everything else about the place quietly insists London Contemporary. This is no bad thing. Chef Jack Beer, most recently at The Clove Club, has served time in many new-wave kitchens and has the butch, ingredient-led approach that they instil.
The panzanella salad was bright, a sweet/sour balancing act with an unexpected flavour of mint. Ox tongue was served on an underwhelming smear of shallot purée but the topping of sun-dried tomato and olive led it back into the room to the sound of trumpets.
Beef cheek ragu was deep and rich and applied to ribbons of silken pappardelle, while the onglet with runner beans was transformed by the use of bagna cauda – usually served as a kind of garlicky fondue – as a precisely targeted sauce.
Huge, fat octopus legs followed with courgettes and salsa verde. The mollusc had been clobbered in the prescribed manner but, though tender, it had a kind of woolliness that was, to be brutal, unappetising. However, we may have to rewrite our working definition of “joy” to include the presence of Beer’s panna cotta with plums and nectarines.
It’s facile to say that Italians “do” restaurants better than any other nation but Toto’s can make you believe it. If Giraldin had put the evening on the wheelbearings of a Testarossa and had the timetable written by Mussolini, it couldn’t have run more smoothly. But Artusi the restaurant proves the other great truth that Artusi the man sought in “Italian” food. There is indeed something about the spirit of it, the love of ingredients and the innate sense of hospitality that unifies into a glorious whole.
Photograph: Helen Cathcart
Walton House, Lennox Garden Mews, off Walton Street, SW3 2JH, 020 7589 2062; totosrestaurant.com
161 Bellenden Road, Peckham, SE15 4DH, 020 3302 8200; artusi.co.uk