The current vogue in opening large restaurants in London has added to the embarrassment of choice in dining out. Whether in overstated glamourous rooms in revamped West End hotels and banks , or converted East End warehouses with industrial chic design, these new establishments often come with unwelcome disadvantages for prospective diners: difficulties in acquiring tables, unless they are celebrities; labyrinthine booking systems or a no booking policy; vast, overpriced menus about which waiting staff are inadequately briefed; service that is so perfunctory guests feel tolerated rather than respected and welcome; noise levels more appropriate to wine bars and pubs; and, worst of all, inconsistency in cooking, with a feeling of mass catering. The average life of such fashionable restaurants is likely to be short.
This is where the adage about “small is beautiful” really does have relevance, especially to established restaurants like Latium, a high end Italian in Fitzrovia. Located near the northern end of Berners Street – which itself has recently seen a large scale opening with a celebrity chef – Latium exemplifies all the benefits of a more modest operation. With a maximum of just 55 covers, guests feel personally welcome and benefit from efficient, knowledgeable service that is formal yet relaxed and friendly. It is overseen by the most accommodating restaurant manager Alex Trumcim and his charming deputy Rosanna, who is also the sommelier. The attractive menu is wide ranging and inventive but not so ambitious as to invite problems of delivery. It allows the highly skilled cooking to shine through, showing a consistency that has encouraged the mixed clientele of locals and those from further afield to return; indeed, Latium is now in its eleventh year of opening, a testament to its success.
Latium does not blow its own trumpet but has an understated ethos and serenity which add to its appeal. Guests can easily walk by its office like frontage without realising it is a restaurant. Inside, the stone tiled floor, white walls with large abstract food photographs, and well directed spotlighting make for a stylish, contemporary design. Tables dressed in fine napery, well controlled air conditioning and good acoustics which minimise noise levels, contribute to guest comfort. Diners near the far end can also view action in the kitchen through a large window.
Chatting with the warm and amiable Maurizio Morelli, chef patron (with Claudio Pulze), we were impressed by the passion and dedication he has lavished on his craft. His love of game cookery, and pride in his celebrated fish ravioli were clearly evident. Latium’s award from Restaurant Magazine’s UK Best Dishes – Pasta category – confirmed Maurizio’s excellence in this aspect of his repertoire. His distinguished CV includes spells at the Lanesborough and Halkin hotels before becoming head chef at “ibla Restaurant” in Marylebone, which gained a Bib Gourmand. Further experience continued with cooking at the Green Olive and acting as a consultant for the Red Pepper Group. Having cooked at Latium for eleven years, there is a sense of real enjoyment and contentment.
Maurizo’s cooking combines elements of traditional regional Italian cuisine – especially of his home region of Lazio – with innovative touches which enhance rather than overwhelm the clarity of flavour and beauty of presentation. Seasonal ingredients, many sourced from Italy, are used to maximum effect. The timing of dishes is accurate, dishes are carefully seasoned and saucing shows a deft touch.
The main menu is well judged in terms of range and pricing. For instance, six anti pasti, five primi piatti (pasta / risotto), four secondi fish, and four secondi meat, is wide enough to promote choice, and not too excessive for a kitchen brigade of eight. A separate ravioli menu of five starters and five mains highlights Maurizo’s speciality for which he has gained national recognition.
Two courses at £29.50 or three for £35.50 constitute a relative bargain by West End standards. There is also a well-priced, weekly changing set lunch menu at £16.50 for two courses (or £22.50 for three), which is also available for early evening
Fine Dining Guide visited on a midweek evening in June, finding much to appreciate in the food, wine and service
A generous set of nibbles arrived in the form of olives, buratta, salami, and light, fragrant olive oil. These were accompanied a basket of crisp breads, white rolls, olive bread and focaccia, baked on the premises. All were well rendered, the moist and well flavoured focaccia in particular having a good balance of salt and olive oil
The rest of the meal was left to the chef’s discretion, as we wanted to sample some signature dishes. These were paired with a fight of wines chosen from the predominantly Italian list which was interesting and moderately priced.
A highly inventive anti pasta dish featured a velvety smooth cold potato cream given a salty richness with ricotta, partnered by soft boiled quail’s eggs and a crisp tuile of mushroom risotto. These elements of differing tastes, temperatures and textures worked well together, being given a fragrant lift with the addition of summer black truffle. (Wine: Pinot Bianco doc La Prendina 2013 Lombardia,)
A second anti pasta dish saw a supremely fresh, succulent and precisely seasoned disc of tuna tartare topped with delicate salmon caviar and a rich mascarpone cream. This was balanced in texture and flavour with young, tender broad beans and fragrant pea shoots in a subtle dressing. (Wine: Frascati Superiore, Casale Marchese 2012 Lazio)
Next came the piece de resistance: a selection of delicate fish ravioli – black, green, yellow and red. These comprised squid ink pasta filled with monkfish; spinach with brill and carrot; saffron with salmon and chives; and tomato with tuna and red pepper. Eaten in a specified order, the distinct flavours of each were clearly identifiable, the soft, melting pasta encasing generous amount of filling. The squid with monkfish and saffron with salmon were especially delicious. A light sauce and a dusting of sea bass bottarga – another inventive touch compared with the usual grey mullet or tuna preparations – brought the four appetising parcels of pasta together. Visually stunning, this labour intensive dish was a tour de force of imagination and creativity. (Wine: Terlaner Classico, Cantina Terlano 2013 Alto Adige)
Equally accomplished was the ravioli of oxtail: delicate pasta shrouding rich meat dressed in a light jus flavoured with celery.
A dish of eight hour roasted belly pork saw this highly fashionable cut cooked to perfection: the glazed soft skinned portion was succulent and meltingly tender, with the fat being well rendered. The richness of the meat was balanced by borlotti beans, both whole and in a puree, wilted spinach and roasted baby leeks, which also gave sweetness and textural contrast. A flavoursome sauce and grated salted ricotta – another unusual touch which lifted the dish – finished this generous, highly satisfying main course. (Wine: Adeo Bolgheri Rosso, Campo alla Sughera 2010 Toscana)
Finally, a highly creative dessert added a fun element to the menu. Piped mounds of rich but not overly sweet white chocolate mousse were interspersed with strawberry puree and mint coulis, giving the colours of the Italian flag.
Caramelised popcorn provided a balancing light crispness, whilst a dusting of liquorice power added a hint of aniseed flavour. (Wine: Visciolata del Cardinale, Cabernet Sauvignon with wild cherries)
Good expresso with excellent homemade truffles and biscotti completed a memorable meal, enhanced by the seamless, unobtrusive service.
Overall, it is clear why Latium has survived the rigours of a highly competitive and ruthless restaurant world. The virtues of finely tuned, deferential service, which might seem old fashioned but still has its place, are undeniable. Equally important is the consistently high quality of the food, which reflects a cooking style which is adaptable but retains the integrity of its Italian roots. The price point also reflects outstanding value for money. Fine Dining Guide will return to this gem of a restaurant to sample other delights such as the tempting fish main courses and the sweet ravioli, confident in the knowledge it will be there for many years to come.