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Terra Rossa Islington – Review:
(invited press review)
Location is an important consideration when opening a new restaurant and the owners of Terra Rossa have chosen well. Diagonally opposite Ottolenghi and sharing a party wall with the wonderful Almeida Theatre, Terra Rossa has pride of place on Upper Street, Islington which is awash with tempting eateries. Having illustrious neighbours is one thing, bringing in the diners is another. I hope that Terra Rossa succeeds because it offers a warm and personal welcome along with bowls of satisfyingly good food.
Terra Rossa opened only recently in December 2018 and the proprietor has made some cosmetic changes to the Spanish restaurant that was there before. The interior has been whitewashed and now exudes light even on a freezing, rainy evening. Large rust coloured paintings fill the walls while long, fabric lampshades soften the light. The atmosphere is relaxed and mercifully quiet – the absence of background music is blissful.
London is not short on Italian restaurants, so it is pleasing to find one specialising in regional Puglian cuisine. The localised focus extends beyond the menu to the staff many of whom, I was told, come from the same city in Puglia. There are many interconnections which make the restaurant feel like a family business. One of the waiters is married to the chef, the cactus art adorning one wall is the creation of the owner’s wife. Our waiter was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the cuisine of his region and keen for us to enjoy it too. Such genuine enjoyment of one’s work suggests a happy place to be employed. The customer benefits from happy staff – not something to take for granted in some of London’s restaurants.
The menu divides into starters, salads, pasta and risotto and a couple of other main dishes like tagliata and a Puglian mussel dish. Pizza lovers have a choice of over a dozen varieties. A set menu offers excellent value at £28 for three courses with a glass of Prosecco. The wine list showcases many Italian varieties and includes a range of beers all of which hail from Puglia. Homemade Limoncello is a tempting way to bring the meal to a close.
We perused the menu over glasses of Ca’ Del Console Prosecco and a bowl of green olives. When the bread basket arrived, I was delighted to find a selection of homemade taralli nestling in the bottom. Having recently returned from a trip to Italy where I developed somewhat of an addiction to these small, round, snacks, I was quick to snaffle them up. I had not realised that tarelli originated in Puglia.
From the list of Italian wines we chose one suggested by the waiter – Salento Negroamaro IGP Cantine Sanpancrazio, 2017 – which had a deep berry flavour and a pleasant smokiness. The negroamaro is a grape grown in Southern Italy for the past 1500 years and grown mostly in Apulia, particularly in Salento.
We began with two starters which arrived in matching earthenware dishes presented on olive wooden boards. Fava e Cicorie was a warm broad bean puree topped with an emerald tousle of wild chicory and served with slices of toasted bread. It was smooth and creamy, nicely beany, earthy and comforting. I liked the wild chicory very much both for its taste as well as its addition of texture and colour.
A generous portion of Parmigiana was very tasty. Thinly sliced aubergine, floured and fried was layered with a tomato sauce that supported rather than overpowered the vegetable layers. It was topped with a generous layer of mozzarella which had that lovely texture that comes from baking. I spooned the last bits of sauce from the bottom of the dish and would have been happy with this as a main course.
For the main course, I chose Gnocchetti Vongole e Basilico – a dish of tiny, homemade gnocchi with a clam, saffron and basil sauce. The gnocchi were light and an interesting partner to the vongole sauce which I usually would eat with spaghetti. The saffron added a rich yellow hue and of course depth of flavour. Saffron has an affinity with shellfish but I haven’t eaten it before with clams and it works rather well. The sauce had that sea-salty slurpy silkiness of a good vongole.
My companion’s main dish was on the menu as the current special and it certainly was just that. Paccheri al Ragu di Mare brought a bowl of hand made pasta with an excellent minced octopus sauce. Paccheri is a fat tubular shape which is often served with seafood sauces. The tomato sauce base was as lovely as that used in the Parmigiana and here played a supporting role to the octopus ragu. I am a great fan of octopus – and next visit I will try the braised octopus on the starter menu. In the hands of Head Chef, Annarita Inguscio, the octopus was tender and very tasty. This sauce was one to return for.
All pasta dishes are available as gluten-free options. The menu contains more vegetarian and vegan options than meat-based dishes which is rather refreshing although carnivores will find joy with Apulian cured meats, homemade meatballs and Tagliata plus a selection of pizzas.
The desserts were perhaps needing a bit of tweaking. The Tiramisu suffered from being slightly too cold while the Millefoglie Alle Fragole needed more fruit in my view. It looked a picture – wafers and cream served in a Sundae glass, The wafers were light, crispy and there was plenty of cream alongside. It was a hopeful way to end a meal on a cold night – the weather will turn and summer will be on its way. When it does, Terra Rossa will open its glass skylight and diners will be able to look up to a garden they plan to plant on a wall above the restaurant. I hope it flourishes.
139 Upper Street,
T: 020 72262244
Disclosure: I was a guest of Terra Rossa. All content is editorially given.