Central London has been fortunate with new wine-related venues recently. Alongside the tremendous success of Terroirs, near Charing Cross, Bocca di lupo, a splendid restaurant with excellent Italian food and wine, is to be found in a side street near Piccadilly Circus. With both venues booking is pretty much essential – which tells you how popular they are. The Bocca plays on a number of word associations – the phrase is the acceptable way of saying ‘good luck’ in Italian, plus, no doubt, most wolves are pretty hungry beasts. Their attitude to great wines is unrecorded.
If you sit at the long and impressive marble bar in the Bocca – and you may well have no other choice – you get fed and entertained at the same time as the ‘kitchen’ is there right in the main room. There is a small dining room beyond and another one downstairs. On the way to the latter you get to see the grand bottles stashed away in their little prison, waiting for someone with a well-loaded credit card to release them – old vintages of Barolo, Brunello and Sassicaia, not to mention the modern classic, Argiano’s Suolo. But while not exactly cheap, there is plenty of interest to be had on the ordinary wine list and even, unusually, in the wines by the glass.
At our early evening supper, we started with an excellent glass of Franciacorta sparkling wine. This is one of Italy’s great secrets. Basically it is an Italian version of Champagne in terms of the grapes used (Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, plus Pinot Bianco is allowed) and method (second fermentation in the bottle), but grown and made in the Franciacorta region of Lombardy. Unlike Prosecco, which can be really good but often isn’t, it doesn’t aim to be inexpensive but is a conscious effort to compete in the Champagne market. The result is a sparkling wine of complexity and finesse, a good yeasty nose but then lovely mature fruit, more rounded and less acidic than most Champagne. This example comes from Berlucchi and is the 2005 vintage and very fine it is too.
Our starters were really excellent, an outstanding Cruditá di mare – raw sea bream, red prawn, langoustine and scallop with rosemary oil – and an equally good salad of radish, celeriac and pecorino, greatly enlivened with truffle oil. With or without the latter you could do this at home, if you have a mandolin with a really fine setting. With this we drank Turian’s Ribolla Gialla, a white wine of great character from Friuli up on the Slovenian border – nice deep straw yellow colour, good aroma of apples, pears and nuts, but substantial in the mouth. It could stand up to much more powerful flavours than these, if required.
The star wine by the glass, however, was undoubtedly Carlo Hauner’s Hierá – a quite amazing red made of Calabrese, Alicante and Nocera grapes from the blazingly hot and dry Aeolian Islands, north of Sicily. In terms of raw excitement this is remarkable – dense red fruit, reminiscent of the grandest Northern Rhônes but at a fraction of the price, and with a dark, properly bitter edge so characteristic of Italian reds. With this we ate a pork and foie gras sausage and farro (an ancient grain related to wheat) with porcini, a dish of some subtlety. Meanwhile our other main was an excellent langoustine risotto. The langoustine were very tasty and been taken out of their shells – so much better for that. They may look good in their suits of armour but it is more generous and easier to eat if they come prepared. The second, rightly lighter, glass of red wine was Ulysse Etna, from Sicily obviously, made from two Nerello grape varieties. This was also full of flavour but the right sort of weight for seafood.
We finished our meals from the unusually long and ambitious dolci menu, so often a disappointment in Italian restaurants. Espresso granita and cream was very good, Rum baba rather average – fresh enough, nice pineapple, but not enough rum/sweet gooiness, which is its raison d’être. All in all Bocca di lupo has a winning formula – informal, lively, an excellent cooking team who can produce subtle or substantial dishes, and an excellent wine list which showcases some of the amazing diversity of the Italian wine scene.