Monday, August 27, 2012

Donna Margherita: An Italian Place that Stands Out, But Not Necessarily for its Pizza

Name Donna Margherita
Address 183 Lavender Hill, London  SW11 5TE
Phone 020 7228 2660
Web site
Main dish price range   £7.75-9.90
Rating  3.5 Stars.  Great restaurant if you're there for the atmosphere, the football, and the burrata.  
Recommended dishes: Burrata with eggplant puree and pesto, Saltimbocca Fritto e al Forno 

Nick and I, as we've indicated on this blog before, are nothing if not suckers for a good Neapolitan pizza.  In 2009 we took a special trip to Rome, Naples, and the Amalfi Coast, partially inspired by our near weekly trips to our favorite Neapolitan pizza place in New York.  Our regular ritual involved making a pilgrimage there after the gym or work, gulping down a whole pizza each-- savoring the gooey center and the pitch-perfect fresh basil-- before washing it down with a glass of house red wine. Perfezione! 

Football Jerseys inside Donna Margherita.
So we were thrilled when an Italian friend told us about Donna Margherita, a small trattoria in South London that she said was a favorite haunt of employees working at the Italian embassy. This seemed like the perfect spot for us to continue our quest to locate and consume London's best Neapolitan pizzas, a journey that had already made us fans of Exmouth Market's Santore. Reading up on Donna Margherita, we were even further encouraged by its bevy of followers: No less a vaunted source than Dan Lepard, the former pastry chef at St. John's, has called it a source of "near-perfect" pizza.

When we arrived on a sunny Saturday, we were immediately taken in by Donna Margherita's quirky, down-to-earth charm.  Italian soccer jerseys hung on one wall, as did a black and white picture of a person we're told is among Southern Italy's most famous comics-cum-mimes. (Side note: This would be a killer place to watch an Italian Serie A game.) A sculpture/city scene made largely using pizza dough stood in one corner begging for attention. We immediately got the meal off to an auspicious start by ordering a selection of antipasti (not on the menu, but you can ask for it), which included what turned out to be a delicious plate-- a large chunk of mouthwateringly perfect fresh burrata cheese, flown in from Italy and presented in a bed of aubergine puree. Like a good burrata it cut open to reveal a gooey rich  center, rich as butter. A smear of homemade pesto snaked along the side of our plate, tasting like perfection.

Donna Margherita: A burrata to remember.
Next up, we ventured into some main courses.  Although we were there to taste the pizza, at least primarily, I decided to also tuck into one of the dishes on the menu's "homemade pasta" section-- the O'Scialatiell ro' re Ferdinando, a classic seafood scialatielli dish. (On our trip years ago to Amalfi, one of my favorite meals was a seafood scialatielli cooked by a nice grandmotherly like woman in a tiny restaurant in the basement of her house-- so any dish of this sort has a special place in the depths of my food memories.)  At Donna Margherita, the pasta had that perfect consistency, bordering on gummy, that makes homemade pasta such a consistent delight.  The seafood-- which included bits of squid, clams, and a giant prawn on top-- also tasted  fresh and well prepared.  The dish, however, was a bit more salty and garlicky than I would typically consider ideal, and could have used a few more tomatoes to cut those flavors.  Still though, a solid offering.  

Sampling the pasta offerings: the O'Scialatiell ro re' Fernando.  
We then turned to the main attraction: the pizza. Nick and I always try to test a new Neapolitan pizza place by testing the most simple iteration of the dish-- the Margherita pizza, which ideally should be the perfect balance between tart tomatoes, warm mozzarella, and pieces of cool fresh basil.  The best version of this dish is presented piping hot, with an almost liquid center. At Donna Margherita, however, the pizza came out lukewarm, ruining some of the pizza's inherent magic.  The middle felt cool and soggy and some of the tastes dulled by this presentation. A friend who ordered a slightly more complicated pie-- the Prosciutto e Funghi-- said he felt similarly: the pizza was adequate, but definitely not a knockout.

Not living up to the hype: The Margherita pizza at Donna Margherita.
Our meal, however, did include one very pleasant main-course surprise. The Italian friend who joined us skipped the pizza altogether, choosing instead to get one the restaurant's saltimboccas, a small sandwich native to Naples. (Not to be confused with the "saltimboccas" endemic to Rome and parts of Switzerland, Spain, and Greece-- a meat dish that involves marinating prosciutto or veal in wine or saltwater.)  I'd the Naples version of this sandwich before, and always marveled at the texture of the pizza dough that's used as the sandwich bread, which some restaurants, Donna Margherita included, make crunchy and crackly-- almost like a cracker-- by frying and then baking.  Here, this hard-to-find dish was practically perfect.  The restaurant offers versions with four different fillings, and the Saltimbocca Fritto e al Forno, filled with provola cheese, cherry tomatoes, fresh rocket, and shavings of parmesan and porchetta, was a stunner. If I lived anywhere near Lavender Hill, this dish alone would make me a Donna-Margherita regular.

Taste the crunch: The divine Saltimbocca Fritto e al Forno.
All in all, Nick and I were glad to have visited Donna Margherita, and would definitely come back again for sandwiches and some quality football/soccer watching.  Crowds of Italian speaking families also added to the place's quirky charm. For now though, our go-to Neapolitan pizza place remains Exmouth Market's Santore.  But, our journey to try all of London's best-reviewed places continues. The lengthy lines so far have prevented us from trying Franco Manga in Brixton, but we'll report back once we do. Donna Margherita on Urbanspoon