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Nestled in the heart of South Kensington, Macellaio lives up to its reputation of Italian dining in London with a difference. "The Italian Butchery with Tables" offers something completely unique: an enormous range of high quality meat cuts that have been butchered and aged on site and an expansive menu that relies solely on the quality of ingredients. There are no condiments, and side dishes are simple and traditional. Requests for mustard or horseradish are met by firm refusal, and customers are offered Toscana extravergine light olive oil and rock salt. True to classic Italian cuisine, the idea is to rely on the quality of what is being served, and not to overcomplicate it. Every ingredient has a story - the olive oil comes from a friend in Tuscany, the cows from friends in Fassona, the formaggi straciatella is made in house... Macellaio boasts the intention of bringing the best quality of Italian produce to London without any compromises, and that is exactly what it does. I arrived expecting a simple Italian lunch, and left some three hours later, feeling like I had been to Italy for a feast. Macellaio's cannot come with a higher recommendation: innovative flavour combinations, unbeatable quality, cosy atmosphere and a menu so vast that it really does have something for everyone. And calling all carnivore's... this is the place to go to get your fix of red meat.
From the moment we crossed the threshold of the busting Old Brompton Road on a sunny Saturday afternoon into Macellaio's, it felt like we had embarked on a mini break to the South of Italy. What at first appears to be an old fashioned Butchery unveils a small, cosy restaurant with wood panelled walls and some twenty small tables. It is dimly lit and romantic, and the open planned seating area is decorated with retro Italian trinkets and vintage wine bottle displays. Each table is dressed with newspaper like menus, wooden cartons of cutlery, seasonings and olive oil and vinegar - which are subsequently revealed as integral to the entire dining experience. The Toscana extravergine olive oil comes from a good friend of the owner's, who has an oil press in the South of Tuscany. It is extremely light yet rich in taste, which I am told aims to enhance the different flavours without overpowering or masking anything. Similar attention has been paid to the choice of balsamic which is made for the restaurant by another friend in Moderna, the home of balsamic vinegar in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. Reminiscient of tradition, the vinegar is made from a reduction of cooked white trebbiano grape juice and had been aged for 5 years, giving it a consistency and sweetness more similar to the relatively inexpensive imposters that we know as balsamic glaze. Apparently, the vinegar maker also boasts a stock of aceto balsamico tradizionale that has aged for 100 years, so goodness knows what that is like! With some freshly baked foccacia like bread, we mopped up the delicious olive oil-vinegar combination - a ritual known by Italians as "fare la scarpetta" . The flavours seem honest, more closely resembling actual olives and actual grapes than anything you can buy in the shops, and each ingredient seems to come with an adorable story. Everything is boding very, very well.
To start, we sampled a variety of plates from the Carne Cruda, Pure and Simple and Salumi e Formaggi portions of the menu. A charcuterie board emerged with a range of raw beef dishes that had me immediately transfixed, as steak tartare is my all time favourite thing to order - any menu, any venue anytime. We began with a beef tartare topped with spicy Gorgonzola Tosie and and Modena balsamic, flamed at our table by the Macellaio. It was unlike any tartare I had had before: the beef - fresh, clean tasting and lightly coated in a drizzling of chilli infused oil - contrasted perfectly with the thick and creamy richness of the toasted Gorgonzola. Whilst another blue cheese such as Stilton might have been overpowering in strength, this was just mild enough to enable the flavour of the high quality beef to come through. Absolutely mind boggling. The second tartare was an Italian style Battuta all'Albese. This was served plainly with Toscano extravergine, salt and pepper. The absence of any sharp accompaniments, spicy or strong in flavour, enables appreciation of the taste of the raw beef itself - which somewhat strangely, revealed itself as a lack there of. I realised it is the lightness, the freshness and the texture of raw beef that I am drawn to, rather than any particular flavour. This came through as a marvel in its own right with the Battuta all'Albese and I ended up fully appreciating the lack of condiments that I probably (and ignorantly, as it turns out) wouldn't have been able to resist. The third tartare was slightly more familiar to me in terms of taste, texture and accoutrements: a steak tartare minced with capers, anchovies, gherkins and onions, garnished with Worcesteshire sauce, tabasco and other usual suspects. Much to my surprise, I was much more impressed by the dishes that let the beef be the star of the show, perhaps because the quality of the meat really was just spectacular. Although the classicly spiced tartare might have been my first choice initially, I felt that it was something of a shame letting the flavours from the mustard, brandy and so on overpower the more subtly nuanced flavours of the meat itself.
The charcuterie board also featured a gorgeous bresaola, a prosciutto and an incredibly lean carpaccio from the Fassona region of Italy. The air dried bresaola and the prosciutto crudo came from renowned Nero Casertano pigs, and had been aged for 3 months. Both were lean, tender and packed a reduced salty taste. The carpaccio, by contrast, was light and fresh tasting as it should be, so finely sliced that you could actually see the light through each sliver. Then there was something slightly more unusual, lardo, which I was reluctant to try when I was told that it was simply "pure lard". My God I was wrong. Tuscany's answer to English salt pork, the slices of lardo were salty with a sweet and musky overlay, served with honey and toasted walnuts to give a completely unique and utterly moreish experience. We also sampled a straciatella cheese, similar in consistency to the soft centre of a burrata. This was made in house, using a stretching (pasta fillata) and shreedding technique of curdled buffalo milk. Unlike burrata, straciatella is not mixed with cream, and as such has a richer more buttery texture, and it is not encapsulated in solid mozarella. Soft, fresh and unbelievably delish. A serious first course...
Next, came the primi piatti, something I have never quite understood. Italian people seem able to retain their good physiques despite insisting on gorging themselves on meat - pasta - and then meat again... If I was eating all of my meals like this, I can safely say I think I would be the size of a house, but never mind - that may speak more to my inability to resist delicious food, perhaps they are more selective with their ordering... We sampled a fresh potato gnocchi served with pesto Genovese and a tagliatelle Fassona ragu, both of which were unbelievable. The gnocchi was soft and spongey, melting in the mouth like butter and exuding the familiar flavour of good quality potatoes, and the basil pesto was rich, salty and delicious, peppered in pinenuts and evenly coated in grated pecorino cheese. The tagliatelle was similarly top notch, baring little if any resemblance to the dried stuff that you find in your average British supermarket and cooked perfectly al dente. The ragu was sweet and winey, with delicious morsels of beef interspersed with fine gratings of white onion and carrot, and unlike any "spag bol" I have ever had, was present in equal proportion to the volume of pasta... I am not complaining. After this, we were brought two dishes from the Quinto Quarto portion of the menu (my trilingual plus one tells me this translates as "fifth bedroom", which I am still struggling to understand the relevance of, but sure). We tried lingua: Fassona tongue served with a bitter salsa verde and Trippa alla Romana: Fassona tripe served with mint and pecorino cheese. Delicious, but I think perhaps one step too bloodthirsty for me... The tongue was particularly interesting, rich and irony in flavour deriving from its disproportionately high fat content. In congruence with what was to come, it was cooked in nothing more than olive oil and rock salt.
Now, for the main show. The "Meats fit for a Prince" section of the menu featured six cuts of beef, served rare with Toscano extravergine and rock salt. We were told rather adamantly, that requests for mustard or horseradish would be met by plain refusal and that the extend of flavouring one's steak would be limited to garlic and rosemary or herb infused Toscano extravergine. My plus one could not believe his ears, being the biggest fan of dijon mustard that has ever walked the planet... However, it was not long before he was eating his words. The light olive oil was just sufficient to enhance the smokey flavour of the beef, but not enough to mask any of its taste. Really, it made me wonder if I had ever really tasted the plain unadulterated flavour of rare beef, unsoaked in rich and traditional English gravies and condiments or French Bearnaises or sauce Dianes. Even bathing this meat in sauce Forestiere (a creamy mushroomy definition of deliciousness, needless to clarify as one of my favourites) would have been a great shame. The Connoisseur's cuts of Fassona beef had all been aged from 25 to 50 days and are served in this classic italian way, on the bone. Unlike the majority of steak houses, the pricing is actually done per kilogram, which although initially daunting, rapidly reveals itself as unbelievably well priced - I am not sure if any one really appreciates how much a kilo of steak is, but the usual amount to receive as a main course is between 150 and 200 g... A kilo is a lot, as we realised when we were shown the raw cut of our old style Costata steak.
Otherwise known as "The Royal Cut", our ur old-style Costata is not frequently encountered as butchers usually keep if for their own consumption. We could immediately see why. A whole rib of beef with the adjoining flesh that binds the rib to the neck muscle was unveiled beneath a silver dome and we were hit by a waft of smokey, almost barbecued flavours. It had been carved into thick slices, revealing a perfectly rare core with the outer layers seared almost to a crisp. I had trouble understanding how such an enormous piece of meat could possibly have been cooked through so evenly on a grill, but they had managed it. I was later told that Macellaio's boast a special oven that was developed in the South of Italy, featuring grill like shelves for the cuts of beef to rest on. Turning the slab once only (to gain the flavoursome grid lines that we all love to see demarcating a piece of meat) the costata was cooked for a mere 8 minutes in this high temperature oven and served immediately. Having been shown the steak a mere 10 minutes earlier, it was incredible to experience the extent to which the flavours had been brought out by simply grilling it in this oven, seasoned with nothing more than a generous pinch of rock salt. Best steak ever? Very possibly.
We were also given some contorni to sample, not that we needed it given the abundance of red meat occupying the majority of available space at the table. A small mound of spinach with garlic and chilli provided a nice, fibrous break from the red meat and the roasted potatoes in aromatic tuscan herbs were the perfect Mediterranean alternative to the roast spuds we know and love to accompany or British meats. The flavours all complimented each other, nothing overpowering the tastes of the fresh, well sourced and obviously high quality ingredients comprising each dish. The perfect way to accompany a steak.