Eating Out

Crepuscular perfection

There’s a new Tuscan restaurant in town — and it’s a success

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Italy has a particular relationship with light. I don’t mean the refulgent perfections with which its painters illuminated the world: not Pisanello’s visionary silvered gleam, Botticelli’s aureate translucency or Titian’s richly dense shadows, but electric light, the kind that ruins your dinner from Messina to Milano.

Long before Thomas Edison got in on the act, a professor named Antonio Pacinotti at the university of Pisa perfected Faraday’s discovery of alternating current by producing the first direct current generator in 1860, which led to the opening of Italy’s first electricity plant in 1883.

Despite this head start, Italians were tardy in illuminating their homes. By the 1950s, per capita electricity consumption in Italy was 12 per cent of Britain’s and even by 1985 the Italians used 30 per cent less than France and 70 per cent less than the US. Many rural homes were still using oil lamps until the economic revival of the mid-twentieth century, “il boom”, when being able to view the contents of your plate in microscopic detail became as much a status symbol as the family Fiat.

Softness and shadow were hopelessly hickish — a restaurant that wanted to be smart and modern ditched the candles and pink lampshades for the flat garish illumination that kills repose and romance in most trattorie to this day. Amid all the guff babbled about what does or doesn’t constitute an authentic Italian restaurant, the most reliable indicator might be whether they’ve left the big light on.

Brutto is a celebration of everything Italian cooking can be and so often isn’t

Russell Norman is going to hate me for this, but of all the features that make his latest restaurant, Brutto, defiantly better than nearly every Italian I’ve eaten at, the lighting is the most implausible. From the Edward Hopper-gleam of the lantern outside, which transforms a street-corner in Smithfield to a Florentine fantasy, to the linen draped lamps and fairy lights glowing just so against walls painted the colour of the Arno on a crisp spring morning, it is perfect. So soothing and sexy that even before you’ve ordered you never want to leave.

Norman is best known for Polpo, the Venetian-inspired chain which brought the cooking of the lagoon to London at a higher standard than anything in Venice. In applying the same level of research and refinement to Brutto he has surpassed himself. The focus here is Tuscan; the (mostly) brown food and the big flavours are there but rendered with more care and love than almost anything I’ve tasted in Florence itself.

Brutto is a celebration of everything Italian cooking can be and so often isn’t — exceptional ingredients displayed with clarity, patient technique and confidence in tradition. We began with two types of bruschette, chicken liver and cannellini, the livers rich and ferrous, the smooth beans pierced with rosemary, then a primo of pale creamy ribbons of pappardelle with rabbit ragu, pasta coated rather than drowned, bunny coddled to a deceptively buttery slumber, her luxuriant gaminess whispering across the palate at the end of every greedily slurped bite.

The peposo beef-shin stew was another bowl of brown nirvana, the meat textured yet soft, peppercorns combusting like popping candy, dirty little hint of winy blood. It is a dish that makes you want to lick the plate and possibly your companion’s face.

Brutto’s big hitter is the Fiorentina steak, the take-no-prisoners T-bone sold unapologetically naked by the etto (100g). Salt and fire are practically the only seasonings for a conventional Fiorentina, so rather like the proverbial chef’s omelette it leaves nowhere for either cook or eater to hide. It can’t come fashionably blue but the kitchen obliged with the bloody end of medium and it arrived unadorned and glorious on a plain white plate, quite simply the best I’ve ever tried.

It’s no wonder that the place was still rammed at 11pm on a freezing January Tuesday

Puntarelle salad, glossy and delightfully rebarbative with anchovy and a smidgin of mustard was the perfect counterpoint to the stateliness of the Fiorentina, crunchy greens against bouncy meat, my only regret being that after 700g for one, pudding was out of the question.

If the cooking and the crepuscule weren’t enough, there are almost too many other things to love about Brutto. The precision and friendliness of the service, the thought behind every detail from the typeface on the menu to the glassware, the wine list which combines some real thumpers with unusual and accessible selections from France as well as Italy, the fact that you can eat at the bar, bring your dog or sip an all-day Negroni. 

It’s no wonder that the place was still rammed at 11pm on a freezing January Tuesday. (An Italian friend who had popped in the week before reported that it was full of local office workers taking a positively Mezzogiorno lunchbreak and actually drinking wine again.)

The pricing is also exceptional, dinner here costs about half what you’d pay for the jaded, arrogant, overlit equivalent back on the Peninsula. There’s no compromise or concession to Brutto, no prinking or twiddling or dialling up for the Brit palate. What really shines is Norman’s enthusiasm and knowledge, his infectious love for Italian food as it can be at its best. 

Brutto: 35-37 Greenhill Rents, London EC1M 6BN 

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