No wonder Sir Paul likes to Get Back to this Italian delight
A dining experience at Sir Paul McCartney s favourite Italian restaurant proves you should never judge a book by its cover Taking pity on an empty looking restaurant isn t the best reason for choosing to dine there. Dinner at La Casalinga was a snap
A dining experience at Sir Paul McCartney's favourite Italian restaurant proves you should never judge a book by its cover
Taking pity on an empty looking restaurant isn't the best reason for choosing to dine there. Dinner at La Casalinga was a snap judgement this week. As we read the menu in the window, four waiters peered dolefully out onto the street. At 7pm, only one table was occupied. Grumpy decided they needed our business. Once inside, a grateful waiter rushed over, smiling broadly, and urged us to sit wherever we liked.
La Casalinga, literally translated, means housewife. Italian restaurants advertising their food as la cucina casalinga are promising home-style cooking. In keeping with the theme, the decor's simple - untouched by the hand of NW8's many interior designers - white-painted walls with a rustic plastered effect, black beams and a weathered parquet tiled floor.
A line of large wine barrels sits high in the ceiling, above the entrance, an oversized blue terracotta pot displays giant fake sunflowers. Tables are covered in white cloths with white linen napkins, with little oil-burning lights next to the condiments. The lighting's just a tad harsh. So far, so unassuming.
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The menu continues the theme with standard traditional Italian fare - all the old favourites plus a few more. A small blackboard on one wall offers a list of daily specials - all in Italian. Our order was taken by Lucio Colasanto - one of the restaurant's owner managers. Originally from Puglia, he has worked here since 1978 and owned it since 1999. He exudes the smooth, confident charm of the practised Italian waiter. His brother Donato runs the kitchen and a third partner - Tommaso is front of house with Lucio.
As soon as he'd left, a basket of warmed mini baguettes was brought over by one of the younger waiters, whose smooth Mediterranean charm was more oily flirtation.
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We were one of only two tables, so the first course arrived quickly. My pastina in brodo - small pasta in clear chicken soup - had been ordered as restorative comfort food. It was. Grumpy's Insalata Ortolana was less successful; grilled vegetables, chopped fresh tomatoes, rocket, mozzarella and parmesan shavings all topped with a balsamic vinaigrette. Courgettes were fine, but shrivelled brown discs of aubergine competed with the mozzarella to be crowned most bland and chewy on plate. We started to wonder about our choice - had we chosen the wrong home to eat in?
We watched the chef - in proper tall white hat chatting with the staff at the bar. Shame, we thought - another quiet night for them - how lucky we're here to keep them busy. But what misplaced benevolence. As our main courses arrived, so did (what seemed like) most of St John's Wood. In about 25 minutes - between 7.45 and 8.10pm - a steady stream of customers arrived. The waiting staff and management greeted many by name. By 8pm, people without reservations were being turned away.
Our main courses arrived. Grumpy's Picchiatelli San Tommaso went down really well. The long thin pasta shapes, green beans and toasted pine nuts well coated in an excellent pesto were gone in minutes. My pasta al forno was penne and a thinnish, meaty ragu sauce mixed with a béchamel and topped with a thick layer of still bubbling mozzarella and tangy pecorino cheese. Simple food, in a portion that would have challenged even the appetite of Pavarotti. Our shared mixed salad was basic.
By now, the atmosphere was full of the twitterings of the glamorous locals from the Wood. We were intrigued by an elegant lady - well into her 70s and clad in huge (gorgeous) sparkly earrings and a leopard skin top - who'd been seated (with her husband) next to us. Their status as regulars was obvious. The waiters - almost caricatures of their profession and masters of the art of hospitality - anticipated her regular drink order and generally looked after her. She told us she'd been eating there for many years.
With less capacity than Pavarotti, I was forced to leave it to Grumpy to order dessert - all the old favourites and even a selection of the ice cream-stuffed fruit shells you used to clamour for on childhood holidays. Nostalgically, he chose the coconut ripieno - half a coconut shell stuffed with coconut ice cream. It arrived on a doiley (a doiley!!) resting over another 70s throwback - a patterned, glass avocado bowl, of the type found at the back of your auntie's cupboard or at a car boot sale. The ice cream was delicious. The service style - pure housewife.
As we scraped the coconut shell clean, all heads turned. Not at our juvenile scraping noise, but at the latest arrival - Sir Paul McCartney. Besuited after an afternoon in court with his soon-to-be ex - he strode in with one of his daughters. He was greeted warmly by the management - apparently a regular at La Casalinga of 25 years. The restaurant itself has been trading for just over 40 years - even older than me.
A saying about books and covers springs to mind. Grumpy and I had made a speedy and incorrect judgment. Underneath the housewife's simple, unpretentious garb are years of experience of satisfying the regulars on one of the most demanding high streets in
NW London. Independents like this save our high streets from becoming carbon copies, lined with the same chains.
Choose simple dishes and old favourites and you'll eat well. It's not modern by any means and some dishes could definitely do with a bit of a makeover. But it's tried and tested traditional Italian food at mid-range prices and St John's Wood loves it. We'll be back - hoping Sir Paul pops in again.
La Casalinga, 64 St John's Wood High Street, NW8
Telephone: 020-7722 5959
Food: Three and a half stars
Service: four stars
Lunch - noon-2.30pm, Tuesday to Saturday. Dinner - 6.30pm-10.30pm Monday to Saturday
Cost: Two courses with two glasses of wine £62 (including "discretionary" service charge)
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