Review: Donna Margherita
IT WAS only last autumn that I finally visited Naples for the first time, sampling some of the finest cuisine the Campania region had to offer, from speciality seafood pasta dishes to exemplary Neapolitan pizzas , washed down with exquisite ‘Lacryma Christi’ wine made on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius.
The experience certainly put into perspective what is lacking from many Italian restaurants in the UK, particularly the chain outlets, whose efforts at authenticity often fall way below par. That’s why it has been such a joy to discover a proper, genuinely Italian restaurant and pizzeria in Battersea, South London, that ticks boxes which others wouldn’t even have thought about.
Opened in 2003, Donna Margherita on Lavender Hill is a typically unassuming neighbourhood Italian which imports its (mostly organic) ingredients directly from southern Italy, establishing a menu that is so faithful to its homeland that the venue has become increasingly popular with Italian expatriates, many of whom were dining there when I visited on a cold Monday night in March.
It’s not just the food that’s evocative: there is a palpable rustic character and atmosphere about the place that is equally so. Shelves brim with vino bottles and speciality Italian foods such as olive oils, breads and pastas, which are available to purchase for any customer wanting to take a taste of the place home. Meanwhile a cute little balcony area overlooks the main floor, housing a table for two laid out for a meal – an atmospheric touch.
To ensure that I enjoyed a comprehensive sample of the restaurant’s menu I took the dégustation option which covered many of Donna Margherita’s signature dishes.
To start, a bruschetta Napulitane and parmigian e mulignan – classic bruschetta with Sicilian cherry tomatoes, and aubergine baked with two cheeses and tomato sauce – along with a traditional fried rice ball (L’aracin) and potato croquette (O’crocche). There aren’t many Italian restaurants around which attain this standard of evocativeness and consistency from the outset of the meal.
Then came the pièce de résistance: a proper Neapolitan wood-fired pizza, made with 24-hour naturally raised dough that gives it a light and easily digestible base. My classic Margherita had upon it just enough mozzarella – organic ‘De Luca’ mozzarella – along with some basil leaves and a splash of optional chilli oil to add a delicious piquancy.
I also tried one of their signature pasta dishes (o’scialatiell Ferdinando), made with extra virgin olive oil, prawns, langoustines, squid, clams and mussels. The pasta was of course homemade and had a distinctive al dente bite, as it would be served in Naples, while the remaining sauce at the end simply had to be mopped up with some crusty bread to leave a completely clean dish and satisfied appetite.
There was still room thankfully to try a couple of desserts to bring the curtains down: a delectable homemade tiramisu while my partner chose the Torta Caprese, a traditional Italian chocolate and nut cake originating from the island of Capri. These were appended with an Illy espresso and a shot of grappa for that final faithful touch – a limited edition Mazzetti Classica 1846 that certainly sent me away with a smile.
Did I mention the wine? There are actually 100+ from which to choose, from all regions of Italy, and to suit every budget. It was satisfying to be able to enjoy a glass with each course from the same region of the food’s provenance – every base is covered.
It was great also to meet owner Gabriele, who alongside his chef is a qualified pizza cooking instructor, and whose passion for the culinary heritage of his homeland shines through his enthusiastic descriptions of the dishes he serves to his customers alongside his waiting staff.
It’s little wonder that Donna Margherita is busy every night of the week, and more importantly busy with Gabriele’s own compatriots who know a bona fide venue when they see one. So booking ahead is very advisable, and be prepared to lose interest in any other Italian restaurants you may have visited before this one.
183 Lavender Hill, London, SW11 5TE. www.donna-margherita.com