Some of the best Italian food in London | Orso, 27 Wellington Street, London WC2E 7DB
So what’s important to you when you visit a restaurant? A) Does it have to be all shiny and new with the enamel dishes fresh out of bubble wrap? B) Does it have to be so cool that it commands a 50 strong line of hipsters queuing outside 24/7? Or C) does it simply just simply have to deliver great food, service and value?
If you answered either A) or B) then you may as well stop reading now and wait for our next review, but if you answered C) then we think you might just like Orso. It’s the sister restaurant to Joe Allen which links to Orso via an underground passage. Both restaurants recently changed hands after Richard Polo, 78, who has run the restaurants for 35 years decided it was time to sell up to Carluccio’s chairman Stephen Gee and restaurateurs Tim Healy and Lawrence Hartley.
The entrance could be missed, no all singing, all dancing name-up-in-lights doorway. Fairly ironic really as Orso is virtually next door to the Lyceum Theatre. Despite the subtle entrance we found the basement restaurant really buzzing, despite the lack of any background music.
This Italian restaurant has evolved, it hasn’t been created or styled. It’s almost timeless, the kind of place that you stumble across on holiday and brag to your friends all about when you return home. You know the one – ‘It was full of locals’ and ‘It served really fresh, authentic pasta’ and ‘So cheap, we had fourteen courses and a bucket of vino for only €7’. We did notice a fair few pre-theatre American tourists, at least some have the intelligence to avoid the Aberdeen Angus Steakhouses. But this just added to the ‘on holiday’ feel. (More on their pre-theatre menu a little later on…)
The decor is fairly basic, pale green painted woodwork and terracotta walls covered in old black and white photos of Italian friends/family/actors/inventors/mafia. Actually your guess is as good as mine at who these people really are, they may have even come with the frames. Tables are simply set with white tablecloths and well-loved cutlery. We saw the manager training a junior member of staff how to lay the table, he was very thorough and precise, a little bit Russell Norman – so a big tick there. In fact a lot of attention is paid to service, the waiting staff here are some of the friendliest we’ve met, especially in London. They knew the regulars by name and they stop and chat to you whilst still being attentive to the diner’s needs and requests – another big tick. We read a really interesting piece in the Evening Standard recently on service, did you know some places Google their guests?
As with most Italian menus it’s divided into five components – antipasto (apertivi on their menu), primo (pasta), secondo (mains), contorno (sides) and dolce (dessert). We skipped the drinks from the apertivi menu and dived in for a cocktail each. I had a classic Aperol Spritz £6.50, while Saff ordered the Peachberg Lemonade £7.50 – a refreshing blend of peach and lemon juice, Jack Daniels, Triple Sec and topped with lemonade. Later on, while I took it easy and ordered a Coke, Saff couldn’t resist a Finlay £6.50 – an interesting mix of sweet Limoncello and dry Prosecco, so good she wouldn’t let me have a sip! P.S. Yes, it really is just £6.50.
The restaurant manager came bounding over to our table, ‘Have you seen the film Chef?’ He asked, ‘Great isn’t it!’ So began a conservation about foodie films and Italian cooking, he was so chatty we almost felt like we were having dinner at a mate’s house, eventually we got round to ordering. We nibbled on the Sardinian flat bread with garlic and rosemary £2.95 and a big bowl of crispy Zucchine Fritte £5.50. This was the second time in a week we’d eaten these, the first being at Ostuni for our anniversary meal.
To start I had the Speck di Agnello £8.95 – cured lamb with soft cheese, rocket and fig syrup. Not too overpowering meat with delicate crumbles of cheese, just out-of-the-garden fresh rocket and a very subtle drizzle of sweet fig syrup (not syrup of figs!) Saff’s Carpaccio Di Polpo £7.50 – octopus carpaccio, olive oil and lemon was little translucent delicate slithers of squid arranged on the plate in a crazy-pavingesque way sprinkled with oil and fresh lemon juice.
Now my main course of Fegato di Vitello £17.50 really was something special – pan fried thinly sliced calf’s liver, pancetta and roasted red onion. I know what you think of when I say liver, that powdery grey meat with tough rubbery veins that was served with undercooked fatty bacon, limp onions, lumpy mash and pissy gravy for school dinners. This was a million miles away in both quality of ingredients and expertise of cooking. The calf’s livers was tender and packed full of flavour, the pancetta was crisp and salty, the onions were soft and sweet with it all cooked in a sticky balsamic reduction. Even my side of Puré di Patate £3.75 (olive Oil Mash) was smooth and creamy, this was the best pimped up liver and bacon that I’ve ever had.
Saff went for a much simpler dish, Orechiette with Cima Di Rape £12.50 – oven dried tomatoes, anchovies and pecorino. Orechiette translates to little ears and refers to the shape of the pasta which is most common in the Puglian region of Italy where we were wed. A deceptively filling bowl of warming pasta cooked just right, Saff loved the dish so much she’s even become an anchovy convert, maybe one day she’ll even like cheese.
With the dolce we were spoilt for choice. We wanted it all, Italian desserts are really quite exciting, my Chocolate Truffle Mousse £6.50 was surprisingly light with an incredible melt-in-the-mouth pillowy soft texture. The bitter dark chocolate was balanced with a large dollop of sweet malted cream.
Our favourite dessert out of the two was the Torta al Limone £6.50 – lemon curd tart on crumbled oat biscuit with meringue and candied citrus. This little tart looked a little out of place, maybe too refined, too styled. All the other dishes had a rustic feel and were served on those mix and match hand-painted crockery that are usually found in the aforementioned holiday restaurants. Visually it may have seemed a bit OTT for where we were, but it tasted fantastic! Sharp, refreshing and light, the perfect was to end a really, really enjoyable (and reasonably priced) meal.
Orso, as you would expect, offer a fab little pre-theatre set menu of two courses for £16.75 or three for £19.50 (available Monday to Sunday, 12pm to 6.15pm). And the best bit? Well there’s no need to rush your pre-theatre meal, you can come back after the show to have your dessert and coffee, how cool is that!
As we finished up we chatted even further with our new friend the waiter, the staff are so sociable, but that’s not the only reason to visit. Sure it’s not a new restaurant and I don’t think it is ever going to cool to be seen there – it’s sure not the Chiltern Firehouse. However the dishes are authentic (and delicious), the prices great, the atmosphere relaxed and the service fantastic. These good old-fashioned values really are a breath of fresh air compared to some of the mass-produced, straight out of the box, soulless new comers. Now where is that secret tunnel, because that DOES sound pretty cool!
Opening hours: Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner
Open Monday to Sunday 12pm to 12am
Book a table online
Nearest station: Covent Garden (4 mins walk) Leicester Square (9 mins walk) Charing Cross (11 mins)
We ate at Orso as their guests, this does not affect our review in any way.
We always write with complete honesty.