When to go: When you want to surprise someone with south-of-the-river sophistication.
What to have: The homemade pasta is a knockout – but leave room for the terrific orange and almond cake.
This sophisticated venture in Peckham thumbs its nose at run-of-the-mill local Italians. With its smart looks, daily menu of simple yet accomplished dishes, and carefully chosen cellar, it could give the best central London Italian joints a run for their money. The minimal interior, complete with communal table and open kitchen in the back room, lets the food do the talking. The short menu – full of punchy propositions such as seared ox heart with olives, or onglet with peas and wild garlic salsa, plus own-made pasta and wickedly good ice cream – is an ambitious labour of love that further ups the ante on Peckham’s poshest street.Read more
When to go: When you want to get your glad rags on and enjoy a decent meal in a smart but trendy central spot.
What to have: Go for small plate sizes so you can try more, and don’t miss the radish, celeriac, pomegranate and pecorino salad with truffle dressing – it’s a Bocca classic.
There’s as much buzz around the food at this enduringly popular Soho Italian as there is the celebs who dine here. This can make getting a table at short notice tricky for mere mortals, so book ahead. For the full experience, counter seats make for a lively meal with views of the chefs at work, otherwise the smart dining room at the back is more discreet. Take a tour of the Italian regions via dishes in small and large sizes, with moreish deep-fried snacks – such as breaded olives stuffed with minced pork and veal – alongside the salads, pastas and grills.Read more
When to go: When you’re in deepest City territory with a company credit card.
What to have: The pastas can be fabulous: try the beef tagliata.
This modernist restaurant is hugely popular with City folk dining on expenses, and it’s easy to see why. The modernist interior is easy on the eye; the staff dance around the tables (though not literally), and the Italian food is often sublime, carefully sourced and skilfully prepared. These creations come at big prices, making the set menu seem like a bargain. Wines run the gamut from cheery glassful to splash-out showcase, and staff serve even the most modest orders with grace and flair. A special request produced the proud claim: ‘We are Italian, we can do anything.’Read more
When to go: No bookings are taken at dinner, so rock up early or very late. Or book for lunch.
What to have: About three small plates per person is the magic number.
There’s a charm to the Polpo group of restaurants, with their NYC meets Venetian bacaro styling, and menus to match. Sohoites have lapped up the ‘small plates’ revolution, which also goes one further (or smaller) at Polpo in the form of cicheti (bite-sized Venetian bar snacks). A few of these with, say, a plate of sliced flank steak with heady truffle cream, or slivers of tender cuttlefish cooked in ink and sprinkled with gremolata, is all you need to be happy. There are further branches in Covent Garden, Smithfield and Notting Hill. Sister restaurant Polpetto has also reopened on Soho’s Berwick Street.Read more
When to go: There’s no phone, so getting in is an act of faith: get there early, and only if you’re already in the area.
What to have: Whatever the day’s specials are: salt cod with lemon aioli, perhaps, or beef rump with snails and garlic butter.
A former car garage (Barnes Motors) in a residential part of Highbury has been converted – though not too much, as thanks to the workshop doors and signage it still looks like somewhere you’d pop in to have a new exhaust fitted. Once you get used to the industrial look of the dining room, you can focus your attention on the blackboard menu of Italian- and French-accented dishes with seasonal British ingredients at their core. The wine list is as much of a draw; from the hundred-bin cellar, staff pick a dozen or so wines for the day’s blackboard list, many sold by the glass.Read more
When to go: At lunchtime for peace and quiet (and a lower spend); dinner for buzz, a great wine list, and the cheering flavour of charcoal.
What to have: Vegetable- and fish-based starters, pappardelle with beef shin ragù, anything that’s come from the grill, and anything calling itself a tart.
If you’re hot to trot to Trullo at the weekend, plan at least a week ahead to make a booking. Even though it opened in 2010, this two-floor contemporary trattoria can still get busy bordering on frenetic in the evenings as the Highbury locals pile in. Lunchtime is calmer, and allows the kitchen to show just how assured and confident its cooking can be. This is also the time for bargain prices: a two-course set menu of antipasto and primo is just £15. Mains feature the oven and a hard-working charcoal grill. And desserts are taken very seriously, with tarts a speciality.Read more
When to go: Date night. After all, great Italian food and wine, chilled out service and wallet friendly prices – that’s amore.
What to have: Everyone will tell you to have the eponymous zucca (pumpkin) fritters, but we have eyes only for the juicy, rosy grilled veal chop.
Years on, food bores will probably be waxing lyrical about how this modest Bermondsey restaurant started a movement for clean, simple modern Italian food at bargain prices – River Café lite. It wouldn’t be implausible, after all. Zucca is a brilliant newcomer, its food refreshingly simple yet achingly good, the prices decent and the design neat and unfussy. It’s a return to letting ingredients speak for themselves, in a time where fussy food seemed to have reached their zenith.Read more