Simon Kelner's Guide To London's Best Italian Restaurants

It’s no secret that the best Italian food and coffee outside of Italy is found in London, and from the haute to the remote, here are five that will make you feel like you’re dining in Capri, Rome or Milan…
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It’s no secret that the best Italian food and coffee outside of Italy is found in London, and from the haute to the remote, here are five that will make you feel like you’re dining in Capri, Rome or Milan…

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Locanda Locatelli, Portman Square

Probably the greatest Italian chef working in London at the moment is Giorgio Locatelli. His eponymous restaurant, Locanda Locatelli, is about as good as it gets in the capital. It pulls off the great trick of being somewhere you can go for a business lunch, an anniversary dinner, an illicit rendezvous or just to have brilliant Italian food, influenced by Giorgo's Northern Italian background and cooked with passion and ingenuity. The service is impeccable and the David Collins interior is functional, bold and sexy. But it's the cooking that sets Locanda Locatelli apart. Expect the unexpected here - I've had donkey salami and basil ice cream, although not on the same plate - and Giorgio is unafraid to serve up dishes that may, in some circles, be considered unfashionable. So you may find steamed hake in sweet and sour sauce or deep fried calf's foot salad with mustard fruits or cured neck of pork with girolle mushrooms, alongside all the pasta and rice dishes you know and love, and one or two with whom you may be prepared to have a longstanding affair, like the Sicilian red prawns and courgette flower risotto. Be warned, however: it's not the place to go for a cheap date. There isn't a main course under £24.50, but it's worth pretending you're a hedge funder for a day just to taste Italian food as it's meant to be.

Riva, Barnes

The last time I went to Riva in Barnes, I saw, separately, Gary Lineker and Laurence Dallaglio, who both live in the area. But Riva is much more than a neighbourhood restaurant, albeit one frequented by England captains and also by television personalities, film stars and AA Gill. Those who know their balsamic roasted onions will travel to this outpost of the London restaurant world to sample Andrea Riva's classic Italian cuisine. Riva has been open since 1990 and its menu is, like Locanda Locatelli, influenced by its owner's Northern Italian roots. There is nothing flashy about Riva: in fact, that's one of its major appeals. Simple wooden tables and chairs and starched linen tablecloths give it a grown-up and timeless feel, and the food is equally straightforward. The celebrated food critic Fay Maschler is a huge fan of Riva, where a rustic dish like roast suckling pig - seemingly a special of the day that is available every day - and the more sophisticated crab ravioli come highly recommended. Prices are reasonable for this quality of cooking - from £13.50 for main courses - but there are very few places in Britain that reek so authentically of a restaurant you'd find just off the Via Corso in Rome.

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Assagi, Notting Hill

Even though it has been serving superb Sardinain-influenced food for around 15 years, and even though it has something of a reputation, Assaggi still feels like a hidden gem. Located rather improbably above a pub in residential Notting Hill, this shabby chic room houses only a dozen or so tables, which enables the patron, Pietro Fraccari, to employ his insouciant charm on each and every one of his customers. Signor Fraccari is one of the very best front of house operators in London, and, together with his co-owner and chef, Nino Sassu, runs a very tight ship. I have eaten here more times than I've had bagna calda, and on each occasion what has emerged from the tiny kitchen has been of unimpeachable quality. The fresh crab, laced with lemon juice, is a beautifully balanced starter, plentiful and fragrant, and this is the best place in London for grilled fish: I always have the sea bass, which, with a dish of rosemary roasted potatoes, couldn't be more simple or more perfect. The pasta, too, is magnificent and they do the best fritto misto this side of Forte dei Marmi. Prepare to pay around 50 quid a head with wine.

Aglio e Olio, Chelsea 

If it's bada boom bada bing that you're after, you can do no worse than head for Aglio e Olio on the Fulham Road. A favourite for after-match pasta for Chelsea fans - it's down the road from Stamford Bridge - this small, noisy joint offers a friendly welcome and well-cooked, well-priced Italian trattoria classics. Here, I've had grilled sardines as good as some of the capital's fancy fish restaurants and a no-nonsense linguine with seafood that was the equal of establishments that charge much, much more. Unbeatable coffee, too. Great value for top-notch grub.

Franco’s, Jermyn Street

If you've lost your shirt buying a shirt in Jermyn Street, there's only one place to go to revive yourself. Franco's has been a fixture in this part of town for more than 60 years and has gone through many personality changes in that time. Today, it is all things to everyone: a breakfast stop, a venue for power lunches, and the place for a smart dinner. Front of house is managed by Jason Phillips, who learnt his trade at the late, lamented Halcyon Hotel, and he knows exactly how to deal with the ladies who lunch and the upscale auction room crowd. The menu is extensive and, in my experience, the food is good without being flashy. In season, the poached asparagus with poached egg and black truffle makes a splendid starter, while the pappardelle with roast quail and shallots the pick of some excellent pasta dishes. Beware, however: West End prices!