The Piedmontese job

Enjoying the silky and lean Italian Fassona beef in Turin and Kensington

Eating Out

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Butchery with tables”— no, not the “Achievements” section in Richard Caring’s CV, but a slightly awkward translation, from the mission statement of the RC group, who presently run six restaurants in London.

The menu at Macellaio RC in South Ken rejoices in Fassona, the creamy Piedmontese breed of cattle from whose athletic thighs issues the leanest, silkiest beef in Italy. Within a cuisine which makes so much of the integrity of its regional styles, Piedmont, as compared with say, Tuscany or Sicily, still feels slightly under the radar. It’s the Meryl Streep of Italian cookery, renowned worldwide for its unparalleled wines and truffles but otherwise preferring to keep a low profile.

Perhaps this reflects the character of Turin, show city of the ancient House of Savoy, who became Kings of Italy in 1861, after which it served for a scant decade as the new nation’s capital. Unsurprisingly, Henry James loved Turin; for its “soft yellow light” and suggestive dreaminess but also for its endless barricades of porticoes and galleries.

Closed, mysterious, a little bit uptight, Turin keeps itself to itself. The Via Borgo Dora, beyond the central market, thus feels uncharacteristically lively when compared with the stately Baroque and Risorgimento facades of the city centre proper.

Originally an industrial district of workshops, factories and low-rise artisans’ housing, it was put on the map when Italian author Alessandro Baricco founded the Scuola Holden, Italy’s first and only creative writing university, in a former munitions factory.

The school is named for the hero of The Catcher in the Rye and its founding principle was to be an institution from which Holden Caulfield would never be expelled, so perhaps the least said about that the better. But Signor Baricco’s response to the need of the offspring of the international rich to express themselves has certainly had a positive effect on the neighbourhood.

Borgo Dora is exceptionally mixed and cosmopolitan for Italy — fabulous antique shops next to halal butchers, edgy art galleries next to French-Arabic patisseries — as close as Turin gets to Shoreditch. It’s also home to SaporDivino, a low-key and utterly brilliant restaurant specialising in Fassona. Everything you’d want in a neighbourhood Italian joint: picturesque yet unsentimental, loving attention to excellent ingredients and fantastic prices (nothing on the menu at over nine Euros).

I had to have the classic Turin dish, ravioli di plin, in a ragu of Fassona, a deep, velvety sauce which contrasted beautifully with the flimsy delicacy of the pasta. The other knockout starter was the Ligurian-style trofie, in a pesto of artichoke, almonds and pecorino, a complex take on a simple traditional recipe, creamy, crunchy and supple all at once.

Liguria is Piedmont’s sea-coast, and the cooking overlaps, not least in the unusual use of gin (Genoa produces it, though it has nothing to do with “geneva-water”, one of the old names for the spirit). It appeared here in the main course, a tagliata of more Fassona in a sprightly sauce of gin, rosemary and chili. The sharpness of the spirit and punch of heat from the spice accentuated the springy juice of some of the best meat I’ve ever tasted.

These glowing orange orbs on leafless winter trees are one of the joyous sights of the mountain country from the Apennines to the Alps

Fassona is particularly suited to serving raw, so there’s also a battuta di carne crudo, literally “beaten raw meat” and a carpaccio of vitello tonnato, which worked far better with the blood left in than the more conventional slices of greying boiled fillet.

Macellaio RC does a similarly eloquent and respectful job on the sacred cow. Here the ragu came with tagliatelle, but otherwise it might have been straight from the Borgo Dora. RC’s director, Roberto Costa, is Genoese, and the Ligurian presence is felt here too in a classic rendering of trofie with basil pesto, green beans and potatoes.

The combination of bright herbs set against rich meat again works perfectly, this time in a salad of tongue in a thyme, rosemary and citrus marinade, with fennel, courgette and citrus which tasted almost more Vietnamese than Italian. Parmesan aged for 72 months will delight cheese-freaks and whilst definitely not a place to take your vegan mates, Macellaio RC is not as good as the real thing, it is the real thing.

Heavy hitting Nebbiolos, the Barolos and Barbarescos, are obviously a feature of both restaurants’ lists, though Macellaio’s prices reflect its more flamboyant character. At SaporDivino they use the Coravin system, which allows for trying higher-end wines by the glass, and perhaps they also had it on the puddings.

In the interest of professional thoroughness I tried two, a semifreddo of nougat and zabaione and a persimmon sorbet. Persimmon is a much better name than the unromantic Italian “cachi”, but these glowing orange orbs on leafless winter trees are one of the joyous sights of the mountain country from the Apennines to the Alps and their sherbety taste is as exotic and slightly surreal as their appearance.

The sorbet tasted as though a fruit had been harvested on the bed of snow in which it had fallen, an ancient and tantalising flavour, mysterious as what might go on behind Turin’s closed doors.

Macellaio RC South Kensington, 84, Old Brompton Road, SW7 3LQ SaporDivino, Via Borgo Dora 25/h 10152 Turin, Italy

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