Pasta can strike me as incongruous in a dolled-up setting, what with its humble roots and emphasis on provenance over pomp. But given spectacular reviews, we gave Zafferano a whirl when wandering through sunny Belgravia one Friday evening.
We rang ahead and were told that only space in the bar was available, which suited us fine. (The main-restaurant embargo struck me as odd when we arrived though, as several tables remained untouched right up until the end of the night). When offered a glass of champagne – a standard upsell in these moneyed parts – I was too busy swooning over the waiters to protest. Each one was unnervingly dashing and sharply turned out – just the right side of flirtatious, utterly charming and almost exclusively Italian – thus coaxing me into a £20 splurge before my jacket was in the cloak room.
The now-ubiquitous burrata is a regular on the menu, but you’d be wrong to yawn. (I’m pretty sure Locatelli was one of the first chefs to unveil this delicacy’s oozing, creamy loveliness to the nation, and for this reason I harbour a major crush on both man and cheese). Heavenly starters included an elegant, seasonal salad brimming with squeaky garden peas and teeny broad beans. This sweet medley was made all the more decadent when garnished with nutty, rich slivers of San Daniele ham, pilfered from my other half.
The wheels fell off the service wagon when our second course arrived, as we were still sharing our starters. There was a bit of an awkward fumble when the waiter seemed to expect us to either gobble the remainder at speed or to simply welcome the dishes as the swiftest mains ever. As a result, I fear we may have rocketed from 0-£180 (including wine) in less than an hour. Fresh pasta with lamb ragú and pecorino was moreish and toothsome: a good, honest plateful of totally unfussy comfort and joy. So too was my arrabiata with its fat, tubular pasta, a peppy sauce and al dente bite.
But chef or no chef, I’m guessing a seasoned Italian can whip up a pasta dough in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Even if Zafferano’s olive oil is the most exquisite extra virgin from a single estate, and the San Marzano tomatoes are imported with the level of care usually reserved to vintage cars or diamonds, how do you conjure up a price structure where even the simplest pasta dish is nudging 20 good English pounds?
Maybe prices are routine for the postcode, given it’s not uncommon to see punters at neighbouring ‘deli’ Ottolenghi dropping a ton on a picnic for four. But two courses for £36.50? Going the whole hog with four courses – your primi, secondi and all that business – will give you scant change from a £50 note. Cripes. There’s no respite when it comes to wine either: the list is vastly dominated by magnificent Italian grapes, and – if you’re a novice like me – you’ll be grateful for the steer when it comes to ordering something other than the Super Tuscans (because you've heard of them, which must make them good). Our Barolo was amazing, but the pricetag was massive.
The décor is smart and ripe with explosive sprays of blooms, but each time I recalled the prohibitive cash assault awaiting us, it took the shine off somewhat. While I was wowed by Locanda Locatelli’s five-star service and finesse when I visited a couple of years ago, Zafferano seems to be masquerading as more of a neighbourhood restaurant (albeit to seriously upmarket locals). In all fairness, why shouldn’t it?! And is it reasonable for me to pooh-pooh a restaurant on the basis that it’s too pricey for me?
Lovely though Zafferano is, I’d struggle to say that dinner here represents value, or that I can justify coming back. I realise Italian restaurants are ten-a-penny across London and that a beauty is a serious find, but it’s simply not in my budget and I can't really get my head around the numbers. Zucca’s a more realistic (and ulimately more satisfying) destination for shallower pockets, with fab food, wine and atmosphere at a fraction of the price.