Well aren't we a lucky bunch of South Easters? Artusi is Peckham's latest opening; it was raved about by Jay Rayner as well as Time Out, which might so some way into explaining why their phone line was constantly engaged on the day I tried to book a table. My perseverance paid off though. The room is small but well lit, encouraged by floor-to-ceiling glass windows. On a Summer's evening, the sunshine streamed through, bathing everyone and everything in a soft golden glow. We relaxed into our Friday evening negronis, crusty bread slathered with butter to help us make our menu choices.
The menu is short, scribbled on a blackboard - five starters, two pastas, three mains. Terse descriptions are made of each dish - 'Onglet with potatoes and artichokes', for example - no fripperies or romance of language, which to me conveys Italian cooking so well. The art of sourcing good, flavoursome ingredients and cooking them with sympathy and care is what my experience of this cuisine is all about. Turns out we didn't have many hard decisions to make; the three of us were hungry enough to order basically the lot, save a couple of starters. Of these, the potato and octopus salad was shot through with herbal freshness, the olive oil grassy and aromatic. Tender octopus met soft, creamy potato.
Lamb sweetbreads held much more excitement for me. It was accompanied by a sweet and sour peperonata; a tangle of red and yellow softly stewed peppers complementing the cloud-like fluffiness of the crisply fried sweetbreads. For £5, it was incredible value - a hearty portion, but the flavours were also well accomplished.
I wasn't enormously keen on 'fish broth with toasted sourdough', but then it wasn't something I would normally choose - my friend fancied it. I prefer my fish soups with a bit more substance and texture, though this is not really a complaint, given the menu description. The toasted sourdough was rubbed with a not-inconsiderable amount of garlic, which pleased me.
Pastas were completely incredible. Home-made pappardelle with pancetta and peas came topped with a pile of grated Parmesan, which melted into the soft folds of the noodles.
Ricotta ravioli with chard and pine nuts were made of thin, delicate pasta, the creaminess of the ricotta saucing each mouthful. By this point, we knew we were onto a good one.
New season lamb with asparagus was exactly that. A perfectly cooked, thick slice of lamb was dressed in a light sauce. I felt like some sort of carbohydrate would have made this dish more complete, though our bread basket was happily replenished.
No such issues with the onglet, potatoes and artichokes. The potatoes had been fried until they were crisp on one side, for that all important textural contrast. The artichokes too had been given the same treatment; coupled with the seared ruby-red onglet, this was one of my favourite dishes of the night. Simple but incredibly pleasing.
I'm not entirely sure where I was going with the angle of this picture, but by the time we tucked into the skate wing with bagna cauda we'd had some wine, and apparently I tried to get arty. That went badly. But the skate itself was a thick slab, bronzed and crisp, tender meat pulling away from the cartilage bones. The bagna cauda, a sauce made from garlic and anchovies, was certainly punchy; steamed spring greens were essential in levelling the flavours out. It had a tendency to tow the line between well seasoned and salt overload, rectified by a little less sauce.
Having had pretty much three courses by now, we could only share a dessert between the three of us. Peach sorbet with salted honey ice cream was the stuff of refreshing dreams. When we got the bill, we were surprised with the £48 / head we paid - we'd eaten a lot, drank really quite a lot and it seemed wonderfully low. I woke up in a panic the next morning that we'd under paid. I wish restaurants would just put the optional service charge on - my maths often suffers from wine - but having ferreted the receipt out of my handbag, we hadn't embarrassed ourselves on this occasion. It was just really great value. With an often changing menu and the happy compromise of bookings being taken for dinner, some tables reserved for walk-ins, I know I'll be back soon.
161 Bellenden Road
Tel: 0203 392 8200