I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, to be honest. Several top eaters assured me that Zucca was hot. In a cool way, of course. Terrific Italian food, they said. Some of the best in London, they said. It’s worth the trip to Bermondsey for the sea bass alone, they said.
So I went to Bermondsey. And was dismayed. So dismayed, in fact, that I went back a second time, because I couldn’t believe that food so ordinary could attract such high praise from usually discerning people. And it wasn’t. Quite. So ordinary, that is. But it wasn’t the answer to the Italophiles’ prayers, either.
Zucca is a model of modern metropolitan canteen chic. There’s an open-plan kitchen alla maniera di River Café, panels of raw concrete here and there, acres of surgical white walls and ceiling, blond wooden floor, huge picture windows looking out to genuinely distressed buildings on the other side of the street. The tables and chairs are Arne Jacobsen-effect. The service is pert and professional. That goes for the young men as well as the young women. The first time I went, for dinner with Clutterbuck, the place was carefully lit and fizzing with people. The second time, for lunch with Upshaw on a warm sunny, day, it was bright and fun, and about half full.
Part of Zucca’s appeal may have something to do with its pricing policy. For a restaurant pitched at this level, it’s stunningly cheap, at least by London standards. Antipasti range between £3.95 and £4.25; pasta £7 and £9, depending on whether or not you want it as a main course; and mains £14.50 and £14.95. The wine list follows a similarly financially accessible pattern, which raises a serious question over the mark-ups in other restaurants.
But no matter how little you pay for a dish, if it’s rubbish, it’s still a rip-off. The food at Zucca is far from being rip-off rubbish, but it’s equally far from the high delights of proper Italian cooking. True, over two visits, there were one or two decent dishes, of which the aforementioned sea bass carpaccio was one, subtle, sexy and satisfying. I also liked Clutterbuck’s thickly-cut ox liver with salsa verde and friarielli, a slightly bitter green from Campania; and Upshaw’s slow-cooked rabbit with trevisano and white polenta. That was a fine mixture of the earthy and the gutsy, with a shading of bitterness from the trevisano to provide a certain lightness.
However, attention to small details, which needs to be axiomatic if Italian cooking is really going to work, simply wasn’t there. The chunks of razor clam in a seafood stew with chilli and fregola were overcooked and rubbery. The prawns in the same dish were farmed and tasteless. I suspect that the tomatoes used to make the base weren’t properly ripe when they were canned, or even if they were fresh, because they had a distracting metallic acidity. “Tastes like Heinz. And not so much ” was Clutterbuck’s accurate dismissal, And the chilli was noticeable only by it absence.
The balance between the casarecce pasta and its pork and fennel ragù was weighted too far in favour of the ragù, a habitual failure in England, and some of the pasta had that tough rubberiness you get when it has been allowed to dry out after being cooked, which is unacceptable anywhere. Other dishes were plain boring. Cuttlefish, potatoes, lemon and parsley was torpid; grilled mackerel with beans positively somnolent.
Still, two bills at just over the £80 mark, including wine, for food of much charm and serious appeal is such a rarity in London these days that it almost seems churlish to moan about what many might see as minor shortcomings in some of the dishes. Many more will think Zucca is the bee’s knees than will carp. My advice is Zucca it and see. Sorry.
Zucca, 184 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3TQ
020 7378 6809