Italy by way of Swiss Cottage – Terra Terra.
If I were an estate agent selling property in Swiss Cottage, London, I would take prospective buyers for lunch at Terra Terra. I once lived in the area and had there been a local restaurant such as this I might never have moved. Terra Terra is precisely the kind of place every neighbourhood needs – personal, friendly, enthusiastic, open all day for a coffee or a meal, serving delicious food and drink, and centrally located. They even offer childcare on Saturdays!
I must admit that I wasn’t sold on the place when I looked up the location. It is situated on a rather desolate strip of Finchley Road, the major arterial route snaking through North London. Across the four lanes of traffic are an underground station and a large Waitrose. Above is a block of serviced flats. Buses, trucks and cars create traffic and exhaust fumes all day. Yet, once inside the glass windows, which are remarkably well-insulated, suburban London disappears for a few hours and one is transported to terra Italia.
The menu is printed on simple brown paper and assures diners of the responsibly sourced ingredients and pure-bred animals reared according to the highest standards of animal welfare. The menu is compact with a bijou selection of small plates, pasta, pizzette, a handful of sides and desserts.
We put ourselves in the very capable hands of the chef, Massimo Mioli and his team. Chef Mioli is a man in tune with his ingredients and was keen to chat and expound on every dish. Diners can watch the pizzette being removed from the Moretti electric pizza oven – ‘the Ferrari of ovens’ according to Mioli – which takes pride of place in the small, open kitchen. More of the prep takes place in a basement kitchen but upstairs I was able to watch one of the chefs rolling out the most colourful pasta. One was made from charcoal, filled with ‘nduja and adeptly worked into hat-shaped ravioli. Next, I watched him roll out pasta with black and green stripes – so pretty I would happily have worn it as a scarf. These pastas are currently being produced in trial mode and I hope to return when they make it onto the menu shortly.
Mioli brought us one of Terra Terra’s signature cocktails to try. Although we were not planning to drink alcohol at lunchtime, a few sips of Jerusalem Negroni made me realise that an evening visit would pass very smoothly indeed. Campari bitter, Cynar Artichoke blended with O’Ndina Italian Gin and Chocolate bitters sounds as good on the page as in the glass. It was a gorgeous orange colour, and the ice cubes were topped with shavings of Jerusalem artichoke. It arrived with a stalk of rosemary protruding above the rim which Mioli proceeded to scorch tableside with a blow torch. Aside from the welcome theatrics, the air around our table was suffused with the heady fragrance of rosemary. Eating and drinking with all five senses is the way to enjoy Terra Terra.
I would recommend going with a group to Terra Terra so as to savour as many of the dishes as possible. We worked our way through a good number of the small plates all of which were excellent and well portioned for sharing. First was a platter of homemade breads with Tuscan olive oil – slices of sourdough baguette and focaccia, wonderfully snappy grissini, and sheets of Sardinian carasau, an addictively delicious flatbread which any visitor to the island will remember fondly.
The marble-topped table began to overflow with wonderful plates, each dish beautifully styled and presented. Beef carpaccio revealed the thinnest slices of meat so tender that they were almost melting on the plate. Small rounds of ruby-coloured meat were anointed with dainty dollops of pesto and a Japanese mayo mixed with a 15-year-old balsamic vinegar. This was topped with a tangle of rocket and tiny parmesan wafers. A truly fabulous mouthful.
Crispy polenta and caponata looked appetising on a blue stoneware plate. It presented a convivial textural exchange between the warm, crispy slab of polenta and the cold chunks of veg. I liked the size of the vegetables which achieved just the right balance of acidity and sweetness from a good balsamic vinegar in the dressing.
A pizzetta – in the Neapolitan style – was topped with Tallegio, sautéed wild mushrooms and sprigs of thyme. The crust was puffy and lightly charred and the base soft as all good pizza is in Naples.
The cacio e pepe arancini with porcini and soy were quite excellent. Only days before my companions and I had eaten arancini at an expensive Italian restaurant that is making quite a name for itself. Terra Terra’s were the arancini I would return for. Three small balls – perfectly crisp, giving way to al dente rice balls cooked with cacio e pepe and served with one of the tastiest sauces I have had of late. You would swear it was made with cream, yet Mioli explained that it is made with soy milk. It had such umami, cheesy tastiness – an inspired way to anoint the already delicious arancini. Below was a second sauce made with porcini. As with all dishes with simple ingredients – cheese and pepper – the balance is everything, and here the pepper provided good heat without overwhelming the other flavours. Cacio e pepe is more frequently served in restaurants as a sauce with pasta so it was a taste adventure to have it served with rice.
The last small plate that arrived was a Jerusalem artichoke soup. This had me swooning pleasurably. One of my companions noted that it was so rich as to be more of a sauce than a soup and it certainly could be served as the former. I was pleased to be sharing as a whole bowl might have prevented me from tucking into the next courses, but days later I was still thinking about the taste of that soup. It looked pretty, the beige colour of the tubers lifted with a swirl of green and Jerusalem artichoke crisps. The texture was utterly smooth and it tasted thickly rich, and creamy (yet it contains no cream). Mioli explained how to make it, but I think it is best to just return for another bowl. A few spoons a day would make the winter pass very happily.
The next course was pasta and we tried two out of the four on offer. Mioli’s team make the fettuccine a la casa and here it was vibrant yellow with egg and paired with a tomato, basil and chilli sauce. Thinly sliced shallots and halved cherry tomatoes rested in a creamy, rich tomato sauce topped with basil oil and chilli flakes. Most Italian restaurants serve a tomato sauce on pasta, and Terra Terra gets it just right.
A less ubiquitous dish is the casarecce with lamb ragù and gremolata. Casarecce is a pasta shape that one doesn’t find on one’s supermarket shelf and a sign of pasta being made in house. Although I am supposed to have given up red meat, I could not stop eating forkfuls of the very tasty sauce. The lamb had been slow-roasted for four hours and then pulled off the bone and mixed with chilli oil, garlic oil, mirepoix, the reduced jus from the meat and some pumpkin. It had a deeply satisfying flavour and bits of the juicy meat were crispy in places which added texture. The gremolata had sage and rosemary mixed in with the crispy breadcrumbs. Another moreish dish with varied layers of flavour and colour pops of orange and green. Very satisfying.
We simply had to try dessert and chose two which are well-loved Italian dolci. Ricotta cannolo with pistachio and strawberry looked very pretty, the ricottas (a mix of cow and sheep) and crème fraiche filling dusted with vibrant green, chopped pistachios and the cannolo perched on a bed of marinated strawberries. The cannolo itself did not have quite the texture I prefer but this was a small matter in a meal of high quality.
We preferred the tiramisu – surely one of the most conventional Italian desserts. Terra Terra has taken a popular dish and changed its look. Two large Savoyard biscuits – the Sardinian variety are bigger than those usually served in tiramisu – had been doused in rum rather than marsala or grappa. The mascarpone cream (a Mioli recipe) was wonderfully tasty and light, there was a robust coffee flavour well balanced with the rum. The whole dish was light, not overly sweet with all flavours in proportion. We all agreed it was an excellent tiramisu with an almost deconstructed aesthetic.
We finished off an excellent meal with an espresso, a cappuccino and a fresh mint tea. The lunch surpassed my expectations of an eatery on this stretch of road where there are many mediocre restaurants. Terra Terra is a cut above and will hopefully become frequented by locals and visitors alike. Terra Terra’s menu is packed with texture, colour and flavour. Like Italy itself.
120 Finchley Road
London NW3 5JB