I have been in two minds about writing about Italian restaurant Latium for a long time – a time during which I have visited the place repeatedly. On one hand, Latium was my “little secret”: not that I was afraid to see it suddenly swamped, it was more of an image problem….MY image problem. Knowing that I write a food blog, people asking me for restaurant recommendations set their expectations very high – and I sometimes, especially with loose acquaintances, feel like I have to dutifully recite the “what’s IN” list of fancy new openings rather than expressing my actual preferences. The question gets even trickier when somebody- let’s say not a friend, let’s say someone you still need to impress- asks “What is your favourite Italian restaurant in London?”… I felt I had no new, shiny, good places to suggest – place that would qualify me as the trendsetter every food blogger likes to see him/herself as. I have tried and being disappointed by some of the most acclaimed Italian restaurants in London- included soulless, overpriced L’Anima and the underwhelming Italian-American Bocca Di Lupo (wet pasta in sour ragu’? no thanks- I’ll stick to drinks).
Latium is very much under the radar- those who know it always remember its specialty: pasta fresca. Pictured here: ravioli with taleggio cheese and Swiss chard (left); tortelloni with crab and rocket
But every time an actual friend asked me about my favourite Italian, I would reply without hesitation “Latium, in Fitzrovia” with the disclaimer “ Don’t expect COOL, but the food is great” – which was the same disclaimer the person who brought me there on a date time ago said apologetically to me before we went in. Most of the time, I would get a “REALLY? Never heard of it” (my same reaction back then) – but everyone who went thanked me later and asked why I didn’t write about it on the blog. I had to admit that I felt slightly guilty about not writing about a place with great food just because it looks like a restaurant I can almost picture my dad having a business lunch in somewhere in the ‘90s.
But a couple weeks ago, after trying for myself the awful pseudo-Italian “cucina povera” concept Paesan and another annoyingly “all trends, no substance” Italian place in Nothing Hill, I thought it was time to sod the “cool” and try to point my readers to a good mid-range Italian. I decided to revisit Latium and finally, for once, take some pics (as previously I had always been too ravenous to actually start eating to take any shots) and write about it here. I have eaten a lot more at Latium than just these dishes, but consider this a sample.
Although Latium is the Latin name for the Italian region of which Rome is the capital, Latium cuisine is not necessarily the one from Lazio. I wouldn’t risk sticking a single label on it in fact – I would say part regional cooking (not just from Central Italy), part international Italian (think Ossobuco with Risotto Milanese), a specialisation in fresh pasta (always a winner for me) and more than a nod to British taste (cue the many, delicious variations of the “meat and three veg” theme). So, the reason why I like it so much it’s not that it’s “authentic”- authenticity is a fetish for many fellow Italians, but rarely a concept applicable to any real cuisine outside of gastro-philosophical disputes. At Latium, chef Maurizio Morelli keeps the menu fresh with special and seasonal additions, but you can also always be sure to find a few favourites- plus a great wine list (at least in my modest knowledge; I never ordered anything which I didn’t like, even from the cheaper end of it).
For dinner, Latium has a 2-course set menu for £29, and a 3-course for £36, with some of their dishes being offered both in starters and main course size (a good idea if you can’t decide). They also have a slightly cheaper pre-theatre menu listed on their website. Some (good) Italian places like the famous Polpetto or even my beloved Ombra, or bad ones like Zizzi with its bland “chichetti”menu , look deceptively cheaper than Latium with their small plates; but for formal dining and not having to fight for the last bit of cheese or feel guilty to be the first to attack the olives, there’s nothing like a nice old style 3- course menu and I personally never regretted a single pound spent at Latium.
A meal usually opens with “gifts from the kitchen”- don’t expect showy amuse-bouche, more a small selection of tasty Italian nibbles and an excellent bread basket (something most Italian places don’t do well, In London or even in Italy). Olives from Puglia, creamy burrata, slices of tasty salami and proper olive oil to dip your bread in – try the paper-thin Sardinian “pane carasau”. Nibbles keep me happy whilst the menu, which always has too many tempting options, leaves me mumbling and pondering – but it’s quite hard to go wrong.
If it’s your first visit to Latium, you’ll have to try their pezzo di bravura: ravioli. I particularly like their sampling selection, which includes four different types of ravioli, simply dressed with butter, to eat in a given order to appreciate their distinct, delicate flavours. All the filled pasta is actually amazing- in my last visit, I really loved both my taleggio and Swiss chard choice and my companion crab tortelloni (picture above). Critics may sneer at the slightly cutesy presentation – I agree it smells quite “retro” in a way which I don’t think is entirely voluntary- but there’s little to sneer about when it comes to flavour and quality and this really applies to almost every dish at Latium.
The interior at Latium, although quite pleasant, is a bit dated. The restaurant opened in 2003 and little seems to have changed; whilst this is a positive when it comes to food, the decor risks to alienate trend-counscious London foodie crowds (pictures from Latium website)
Ravioli portions are not big but filled pasta is very rich. Other pasta dishes like tagliatelle or gnocchi come in hefty portions for a fine dining place, and with chunky sauces. A divine summer truffle pappardelle (wider tagliatelle – just to confuse foreigners of course) I had a few months ago is still very vivid in my memory and one of the top 5 things I ever ate. Of course, ingredients like truffle are seasonal so not always available – but you can trust the helpful staff to always recommend excellent dishes based on your taste, not on what they want to push. In general, staff at Latium is very good, treating even regulars with a touch of endearing old-style formality. Service being another thing many Italian places fail at (ranging from over familiar, nosy waiters-owners who want to be your best friend to icy maîtres d’ who were probably shop assistants at Prada in a previous job), I quite appreciate their professionalism.
Another good thing about Latium is that meat and fish mains are definitely not just an afterthought added to cater (poorly) for the non-pastavores. In fact, having been there many times, I have often chose pasta in starter size to save space for one of those. In this season, the menu is heavy on venison and I was really happy with my dish of perfectly pink deer saddle with chanterelles and chard on the last visit. The fish is equally well executed, with a starter of scallops with aubergines and ricotta salata (cheese and fish- not an easy combo to pull off and one to make the Italian food purist shiver) is one of my solid favourites.
Strawberry millefeuille (left); a classic, perfectly executed tiramisu (right)
The dessert section can be a tricky one- here you find my only dislike on Latium’s food- the dessert ravioli section. Althought sweet-filled- pasta is a thing in Italy (Sardinia has a type of fried ravioli filled with ricotta and candied fruits, North-Eastern Italy has sweet plum-filled gnocchi) I really can’t bring myself to prefer Latium’s daring creations (ravioli with pianeapple) to the classic. Their tiramisu is a great choice - especially if you have been tricked by past bad experiences into thinking that it’s nothing more than a mushy mass of cheap liquor-soaked sponge and a blob of heavy cream. On the last visit I was tempted by the straweberry millefeuille; it was somehow a test, as let’s admit it, the pastry area is generally where we don’t have a patch on our French cousins – but it was every bit as good as any puff pastry I had in Paris, and beautifully deconstructed on the plate in a triumph of colours and textures.
I hope I have made you curious enough to push you past the hurdles that would have normally kept a foodie away from Latium- the touristy location, the anodyne entrance, the dated decor and the (wrong) assumption that it lacks novelty. To me, the discovery that it is possible to eat great Italian food at reasonable prices in Central London is always GREAT (if not new) news.
You can read another review of Latium (from which I borrowed my scallop picture) written by my friend Felicity for Blue Tomato here.