Sublime pasta dishes and breadsticks for jousting just off Trafalgar Square – 9/10
The influx of pasta specialists in London over the last couple of years has been hugely welcome. With the likes of Padella (Borough Market), Pastaio (Soho) and Flour & Grape (Bermondsey Street) all satisfying our pasta cravings at very reasonable prices, it was starting to feel like we were at a tipping point. How good can pasta be, right? The answer, as it turns out, is exceptional.
It’s a freezing January evening. I’m wearing four layers and still shivering. After a quick wander around the late-night National Gallery, we stop en route at Terroirs (William IV Street), pretty much the only place I would have previously recommended in the touristy area around Trafalgar Square for good food paired with interesting wines. A little glass of 2016 Ampeleia from Tuscany and we are warmed up and ready for dinner.
Every time I go to a pasta restaurant like Bancone I have the same problem: how do I try as many different dishes as possible without looking like a greedy bastard? Usually I give in and just keep ordering until the waiter raises an eyebrow. We order two classic negronis to help us think. They are as strong as rocket fuel, but improve with an extra squeeze of the orange slice. Our waiter, clearly underestimating my capacity for fresh pasta, suggests that two antipasti and three pasta dishes is enough to share between us. The room is simple, elegant, softly lit. Dating couples sit at Bancone’s namesake counter and watch the chefs at work in the open kitchen.
Extra-long grissini (breadsticks) arrive in a little glass vase and loom over our table. We pretend to joust with them and receive disparaging looks from our neighbours. The top quarter of each lance is wrapped with either smoked duck breast or lardo. They remind me of the “flesh and bone” served at Hide (Green Park), with one noticeable advantage – I can devour the “bone” afterwards.
I will always order lardo if I see it on a menu. It’s made from the thick layer of fat on a pig’s back – not the most appealing part of the animal to start with. However, the residents of Colonnata (northwest of Florence) then place the fat into a garlic-rubbed marble basin, season it with salt, pepper and rosemary and cure it for at least six months in the warm marble caves local to the area. The result is a creamy, herby salumi, which is usually sliced thin like prosciutto and served as antipasti.
Next, three rolled aubergine slices, stuffed with basil and soft cheese. Sundried tomato unexpectedly comes as a kind of dehydrated gravel, which we scoop up with our forks. It’s a clever idea: all the umami flavour without the smothering oiliness that oozes from those fresh from the jar.
A whole burrata comes with a swirl of balsamic vinegar, a charred sprig of radicchio and a crunch of puffed rice. Radicchio (like its cousins, chicory and endive) is always too bitter for my taste buds, even when grilled, but the char and sweet balsamic temper the bitterness.
The fazzoletti (or “silk handkerchiefs”) with walnut butter and confit egg yolk – maybe the most Instagrammed pasta in London right now – are sublime. The wide rectangles of handmade pasta are delightfully difficult to cram in your mouth. Rich walnut butter runs down my chin but I’m long gone – eyes closed, full rapture.
Slow-cooked 10-hour oxtail ragù with mafalde (like fettuccine with wavy edges) is almost as good. Large chunks of meat still hold the last bits of fat and the earthy sauce clings to the ruffled pasta edges. We twirl enormous mouthfuls and chomp contentedly. A dark ruby 2014 Li Veli Askos Susumaniello from Puglia is rich and robust enough to stand up to the ox.
The final pasta dish, beef shin “ossobuco” ravioli with a silky saffron butter, is the most beautiful but sadly the least satisfying. The pasta is slightly too al dente at the edges of the little flying saucers and the filling should be softer and less dense. Minor criticism considering the quality of the two dishes that came before.
After stuffing our faces, we somehow find space for dessert – a heavenly gianduja chocolate cremeux (somewhere between a tart and a mousse) topped with light, whipped peaks of mascarpone. Deeply chocolatey, nutty and (like me) maybe slightly alcoholic, it’s the perfect end to a wonderful meal.
Bancone is one of those places you know you shouldn’t tell anyone about. You’ll want to keep it a secret just for yourself, far away from the baying horde of tourists a stone’s throw away in Trafalgar Square. I’m actually glad it took us a while to get here, as they appear to have tweaked the menu for the better since the first reviews came out in August 2018.
Unlike some of its competitors, Bancone takes bookings and has a private dining space upstairs. The prices are also ridiculously reasonable. The most expensive antipasto is £9.50 and pasta dishes range between £9-14. Our food cost us £75. We racked up another £70 on cocktails and wine.
A Moveable Feast