At the end of Chatsworth road, in lower Clapton, there is an old pub – 150 years old I reckon – that has an old stone arch that simply says Clapton Park Tavern, and only very recently became an Italian joint serves pizza and pasta and bottles of rough red wine.
In lower Clapton, this is a bit of a thing, because in both directions as far as you can see, the other restaurants serve Caribbean fish stew, fried chicken, and kebabs of the type that are the tall tower of mince rotating slowly in front of a red hot grill. So the Italian place is very welcome, especially on a clear, cold January night where the wind is blowing up the road and the damp of the last rain is still in the air.
We weren’t even supposed to be here tonight. The chill had driven us to the Elderfield pub where the warm light from the foggy windows muffled the clink of pint glasses and the din of locals covering the events of the week in conversation. But the Elderfield doesn’t serve dinner and tonight called for much more than roast nuts and pickled eggs, so we had walked on. We had walked over to Shane’s, where game terrine and partridge and roast parsnips were on the A-frame chalkboard menu that stood on the sloping sidewalk outside the door. But it was Friday, and without a reservation, there was no table at Shanes. But the hostess saw that we were cold and that we were looking to settle in to a warm table with some candles and eat a real supper, and so she told us about how the old pub on the corner that had builders coming and going for weeks was finally opened as an Italian joint and that it had a proper stone pizza oven and why didn’t we try there. And so we did, and the vision of the place with chandeliers and candelabras blazing through the tall windows, taunted us from all the way down the road.
We shuffled past the two guys with black jackets and slicked-back hair smoking imported cigarettes, through the swinging double doors. Inside, the noise matched the faces that were laughing and talking and drinking in a muffled gurgle from the outside. The tables were full, and the servers were moving very fast to get the round white plates of pizza to the tables that were packed into the tight corners. The strain on the server’s faces and the quick gestures and flickering eyes gave away that it was the opening night. But still, straight away, a thin guy with tall black hair and spiral bands of tattoo on his forearms walked close and shook my hand with both of his and said that wouldn’t we care for a drink and that we could have the far table in the corner in ten minutes.
So we ordered a bottle of the house red wine and it was a dark red Nero D’Avola from Sicily and it was cool from being in the stone cellar behind the kitchen. We had talked about Campari and about Amaroni Montenegro and even a Negroni, but in the end, it was the red wine, even though there was no food to go with it just yet.
One glass into the Nero D’Avola, the tall-haired guy returned and asked would we be pleased to sit with another dining couple in the corner, and yes we would, and so he guided us to the table with another couple, who were from Spain or Russia but I can’t be sure, but they had dark hair and a gentle manner and we all four sat at the table and after brief formalities, carried on with our individual conversations.
I was already decided on ordering a pizza, because it is a dish that a restaurant can do right with a big, stone oven running red hot with coals of wood. A good, thin pizza, from a hot oven is one of those great things that you simply can’t create at home. I ordered a pizza called Cabrito which had only a smear of bright red tomato sauce, then small puddles of green Genovese pesto, and tart sun-dried tomatoes and dollops of tangy goat cheese. The sauce was just right, not too salty and certainly not sweet. The goat cheese was half melted and had that mild chalkiness that makes it so unique among cheeses. We also ordered pasta. We deliberated about the penne, which is a great noodle shape, and the tagliatelle. We asked the waitress was the tagliatelle home-made and of course it was, and so we ordered the tagliatelle. It was served with flecks of porcini mushroom and softened leeks and chilli and oil. It was spicy and the noodles had a good chewy bite to them. There was enough porcini so that the dish really was about the earthy, smoky taste of porcini, which is not always the case at a restaurant, even a good one.
The bottle of red went pretty quickly once the food was in front of us and it dragged out a conversation about work and cooking and teaching cooking and hosting dinners and about maybe we should one day get an old stone farm house in Tuscany and convert it to a guest house and run cooking classes. The waitress kept coming over to check on us to see that we were enjoying ourselves and the slim guy with the tall hair did the same. It was definitely an opening night type of thing to make sure we were very pleased.
When we were full and the plates were gone and we were at the place in our conversation about the gray-brown of the upturned soil on the Tuscan hills in late fall, when the wheat harvest was over, the tall-haired guy brought us heavy shot glasses of Amaro Montengro to sip. The liqueur was sweet , with just enough bitter to settle your stomach.
On the way out, after our jackets were on, and we settled the bill, the girl behind the bar beckoned us over and poured us two small glasses of a deep red current liqueur from Sardinia. The stuff tasted like cough syrup, but she kept asking us about our travels to Italy and how was the meal and so we had to drink the stuff – one tiny sip at a time – until the conversation ran its course and we could excuse ourselves.
Walking out into the night, the cold air and the breeze and shining, wet street were shocking after almost believing that we were in Rome or Napoli or somewhere else in Calabria. But we walked, smiling and remembering the pizza and the porcini and the liqueur, me in front to block the wind all the way up Chatsworth road, past Shane’s where they were stacking the wooden chairs. The pizza place was going to be the perfect addition to the street, and I was pleased to see the 200 year old building with its tall, Victorian, corner windows being used for something noble like good, wood-fired, stone-oven pizza. That the place served decent wine and had those obscure bitter liqueurs that you only saw in Italy made it all the better.