Excellent fare, but who's flying the plane at Osteria Stecca?
by VICTORIA PREVER How do you feel when you re 30,000ft above the ground and the captain appears on your side of the cockpit door? Initially pleased, perhaps, that he looks the part and has taken the time to mingle with his passengers. Subsequently, a little anxious, probab
How do you feel when you're 30,000ft above the ground and the captain appears on your side of the cockpit door? Initially pleased, perhaps, that he looks the part and has taken the time to mingle with his passengers. Subsequently, a little anxious, probably, that he's not actually flying the plane?
It was with a similar mixture of pleasure and concern that I watched Stefano Stecca, chef patron of Osteria Stecca, working the dining room for the greater part of the time I spent there recently. At one point, we even saw him disappear over the road to the local shop, returning with a carrier bag of provisions. Perhaps he'd run out of olive oil, or just needed some fresh air? Whatever the reason, he seemed to have spent very little time behind his stove.
He was, however, a charming host. A tall, solidly built Italian, personally delivering several plates of food, advising one table of young Italians what to order and eventually, at about 3.30pm, sitting down to enjoy the cheese course with another table of his countrymen. All well and good, but who, we wondered was cooking?
We visited for Sunday lunch, within days of the restaurant's opening. The 50- cover dining room was filled predominantly with large tables of Italians and young families enjoying a relaxing Sunday lunch.
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The atmosphere was lively but friendly. We felt as if we had walked from snowy NW8 into a Roman restaurant. There's a very Italian front-of-house team - each as sexy and slick as a Testarossa with the charm to match. I recognised one of the maitre d's from his previous role at Marylebone's Caffe Caldesi. He greeted me like a friend.
The room, designed by David Dalmada - responsible for Zafferano (one of Stecca's old haunts) and La Petite Maison, is ever so Alessi - clean and modern.
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There's a small bar tucked into the back of the restaurant and the majority of seats are in the bright conservatory. In the summer, there are a further 20 seats on the terrace. Crisp, white linen cloths and comfortable black leather high-backed chairs add to the luxe feel. It's unpretentious, stylish and simple.
While ordering, we dipped small pieces of ciabatta (some of which had perhaps spent a little too long waiting for us) in richly yellow, mild olive oil. The menu offers two courses for £18, three for £21 and four for £24. A couple of some dishes - like the lobster - do attract a supplement though, which is a shame. Courses are divided into antipasti, primi piatti (first courses), le carni (meat), i pesci (fish) and i dessert. There's a full, slightly pricey wine list, although there are some wines available by the glass. There's also a selection of Italian cocktails.
Our first course arrived promptly. Grumpy was a little nonplussed by his tuna three ways. Three very nouvelle looking versions of tuna sat on a black plate. A sliver of sashimi, a circle of seared tuna pressed with herbs and a quenelle of tuna tartare sat around an attractive pile of mixed leaves. It was, according to my husband, fresh and well-seasoned but needed a sauce. My starter was more successful. A pile of tiny mozzarella bocconcini - looking like giant frogspawn, a quenelle of delicious, mild aubergine caviar and a tiny slice of perfectly grilled aubergine topped with salad leaves. It was also a bit nouvelle in appearance but filled with flavour.
Noise levels were, by now, fairly high - mostly from a newly mobile toddler straining to leave her table and promenade around the restaurant. The staff had endless patience, despite having had a hugely busy previous night.
With less tolerance, I was relieved to see our main courses. Grumpy almost sang with delight over his - a fresh, meaty piece of seabass on perfectly cooked spinach and slices of delicious, almost candied tasting, braised fennel. It was immaculate.
My tagliatelle al Bolognese was not quite what I was expecting. The fresh pasta was perfect but the ragu, while flavoursome, was a bit restrained. Tiny pieces of beef, tomato, celery in a thin tomato sauce were delicious, but lacked the heartiness I'd expected. At another table, I watched with envy as another diner devoured a pile of paccheri (thick pasta tubes) coated in thick tomato sauce. I'll be returning for some of that.
Enjoying the whole lazy Sunday atmosphere we went for the three courses. My Omelette Norvege was an individual baked Alaska. Soft sponge soaked in syrup was topped with vanilla ice cream under a just-cooked lid of meringue. Perfect. Grumpy's small wooden board with a selection of Italian cheeses, a dish of honey and one of chunky mostarda di frutta had him almost moaning with pleasure.
The glass of Moscato he ordered with it almost sent him into some sort of sensory overload. I'm not sure I've seen him quite so happy in some time.
It's early days for Osteria Stecca but I was very impressed. If Stecca can spend a little more time in his kitchen to iron out the minor kinks, this sexy new modern Italian should be a great addition to our local restaurants. The set pricing structure makes it an affordable weeknight treat and it's definitely smart enough for a St John's Wood Saturday night out.
83-84 Blenheim Terrace NW8
Food: Four star rating
Service: Five star rating Cost: £62.44 for two, including service and two glasses of wine.