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Andrea Reitano, born in Naples just 20 years ago, is one of three partners who recently opened Assunta Madre, an Italian fish restaurant in Mayfair. I feel confident, for several reasons, in describing him as the envy of restaurateurs everywhere.
Reitano has managed to open not just in London’s West End, where all the world’s top restaurateurs want to be, but on Blenheim Street, between the top of New Bond Street and Oxford Street. It is an address that is a much-needed match for the prices a first-rate fish restaurant must charge these days.
The young Italian has also managed to pull this off without having to pay a premium for the site, a financial hurdle that deters many aspiring restaurateurs. Reitano readily admits it was “great good fortune” that led him to this location just as the former owners (trading as the restaurant Semplice) were closing down. Not to have to pay this “key money”, which can run to several hundred thousand pounds or more, is commercial fortune indeed.
The original Assunta Madre was opened in Rome in 2009 by Johnny Micalusi, whose fishing boat provides the name and the catch for both branches. The London outpost has already drawn the attention of experienced restaurateurs who have eaten here and keenly inquired about buying the fish that is flown in daily from Rome.
Micalusi’s fishing boat is based at Terracina, on the Mediterranean coast southwest of Rome, and an image of it appears at the entrance, on the placemats and business cards. Although Micalusi has become something of a celebrity back in Rome, he shows no hesitation in rolling up his sleeves. I first saw him pushing a large, newly delivered fridge into place in the London kitchen and I was subsequently introduced to him as he was standing by a tank of lobsters in the reception area. Micalusi put his hand in, pulled out a loose claw and said, “They’re cannibals.”
Reitano met Micalusi as a customer in Rome. There had already been talk of opening a branch in London to satisfy demand from the many Italians living in the city. Reitano persuaded Micalusi to charge him with the project, assuring his father that he was going to continue his economics degree. With the help of an Italian backer, he is now a restaurateur at an age when many of his contemporaries are still only waiters.
By the restaurant’s front door is the pescheria that contains polystyrene boxes of large, colourful fish – from turbot, red mullet and John Dory to gamberoni rossi (large red prawns) and red snapper. Once inside, we were greeted by a young Italian waiter who smiled as he led us to our table, and added, “I hope you’re looking forward to some good food.”
Dinner here with my family brought back happy memories for us all of holidays in Italy. The interior is an exact copy of the Roman Assunta Madre, right down to the lights, wooden beams and tiers of boxes of Italian wine in every corner. The feel is definitely that of an osteria rather than the more expensive restaurant that the prices on the large menu convey. (My bill for five came to just under £500.)
We began with excellent stuffed tuna and sea bass rolls and a couple of very fresh sea urchins before moving on to a colourful seafood salad adorned with a couple of plump red prawns that should have been served a little cooler, and three pasta dishes with, respectively, sea bass and lemon, clams and scorpion fish.
The choice of a main course provided considerable uncertainty as prices are quoted in pounds per 100 grams so that the final cost, according to the weight filleted in the kitchen, is unknown. The large fillets of red mullet and the gallinella (saltwater fish also known as capone) with cherry tomatoes and black olives turned out to be £40 each.
The dessert choice is limited to an apple tart, chocolate cake and ice cream but a highly enthusiastic sommelier made up for this – particularly with his endorsement of a Casale del Giglio Petit Manseng 2012 from Lazio.
With Assunta Madre alongside Nobu and Scott’s, Mayfair now has a trio of great and authentic fish restaurants.
8-10 Blenheim Street, London W1S ILJ, 020 3230 3032; assuntamadre.co.uk
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
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