UNDER THE VOLCANO
This tiny outpost of Naples is the pride and joy of Notting Hill. Now comes the terrible news that it is under threat Da Maria on London’s Notting Hill Gate is not much to look at, literally. It is less a fully fledged restaurant than a strip-lit, table-laid cupboard. It looks like a sandwich bar with ambitions above its station, which is exactly what it is. The space did once just knock out sandwiches. Then the Ruocco family arrived and in 1980 opened it as a Neapolitan trattoria. Last year we included it in the OFM 50, our list of things we love about food, because you’d have to be a sour, desiccated misanthrope with a sneer you could park a bike in, not to love it.
There is a menu of pastas and pizzas and secondi, supplemented by specials made by Maria Ruocco, depending upon what’s in the fridge and on her mind. There are a couple of wines. There are plain tablecloths, the better to wipe down, and along one wall there’s a shrine to SSC Napoli, less a football team than a religion. On match days they screen the games and the place is packed out with a roar that can be heard all the way to the Bay of Naples. And of course, it’s cheap. Nothing is more than £8 or £9. When we wrote about it last year we described it as “the best Neapolitan family cooking” north of the San Paolo stadium.
In an age of the manicured and the conceptualised, of restaurants with themes and slates, of couscous served on trowels and prices that make you want to heave up paving stones to turn into missiles as you cluster at the barricades, a cheap democratic eatery like Da Maria is not just a nice thing. It’s not quaint. It’s a vital resource. It’s the kind of place that keeps a city like London both human and, more to the point, humane. In the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, a restaurant of this quality at these prices is akin to a bloody miracle.
Which makes the news that there are attempts to wipe it from the map by turns infuriating and utterly heartbreaking. Da Maria’s sliver of heaven is within the building occupied by the Gate Cinema, now part of the Picturehouse group. Their entrances are side by side. They share a landlord, Imperial Resources Ltd, which has made a planning application to extend the cinema’s foyer, by knocking through into Da Maria and putting the restaurant out of business after 37 years.
For their part Picturehouse Cinemas says they knew nothing about it, until we alerted them to the application. It seems the landlord hadn’t bothered to tell them what it was doing. “We are proud to serve the vibrant community of Notting Hill and value being neighbours to Da Maria trattoria,” a spokesperson
A ricotta tart with oats and candied peel is a glorious thing that has you chasing the crumbs round your plate
for Picturehouse said.
So what exactly is at risk? In short, all the good things. I visit on a quiet night, when the TV is playing Italian food shows, rather than football. There’s an Italian chap from the Dolomites on one table eating by himself, between banter in the mother tongue with the owner. There’s a family of four on another table catching a late supper. Generally, you come here for a plate and a glass of wine, but I have responsibilities and know that for me it must be the works. From the pastas there’s a bowl of spaghetti, all bite and slipperiness, with toasted garlic, olive oil and chilli. The pasta is soothing, the accessories ripe and pungent. It’s as good a pasta dish as I’ve eaten anywhere.
In many other places that have clumsily attempted to appropriate bits of the Italian repertoire without understanding them, arancini are tough, dense golf balls waiting to land with a thud in the depths of your disappointed stomach. Here the arancini are hot wobbly pyramids of soft rice enclosing a little savoury ragu. A plate of antipasto brings gossamer slices of prosciutto, to be dangled by finger over the mouth, and perfectly oily pieces of salami with the fats just starting to run. Snowy mozzarella comes interleaved with slices of tomato.
A diavola pizza is chewy of crust and hot of cheese and salami. They offer both chilli flakes and chilli oil and encouragement, for we are basically on Neapolitan sovereign territory here and they understand the important things. Are these the very best pizzas available in London? Probably not, but that’s missing the point. This is family cooking, made available for retail, the kind of stuff that makes you feel you are being looked after by someone who cares. As does a plate of braised meats in gravy with roasted aubergines. This is proper dinner at the end of a long day.
Maria’s tiramisu is much more than that. It needs to be tried by everyone else attempting to make one. Too often these days tiramisu is something akin to an Italian trifle; a creamy mess, with a back hit of coffee and very little structure, that can only be eaten with a spoon. Maria’s is a multilayered affair of dense, espresso-soaked sponge and cream. It is forkable. It has depth and meaning. Pastry is clearly a strength. A ricotta tart with oats and candied peel, served still warm, is a glorious thing that has you chasing the last crumbs round the plate with fat thumbs. At the end, they bring thimble-sized freebie glasses of bracingly sweet limoncello, which is a kick to the back of the throat, as the good ones always are. You don’t know whether to drink it or clean the bath with it. Either way it will make you happy.
All of this is under threat and for what exactly? Six extra square metres or so on a cinema foyer. It wouldn’t just be the end of a lovely restaurant run by lovely people. It would be another blow to an idea: that even in a city like London, increasingly engineered for a population that thinks taps come gold-plated as standard, there is still a place for those on lower incomes.
Is it significant that it’s located in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea? Yes, I think it is. Without taking a sledgehammer to the issue, it’s fair to say the local council doesn’t have a brilliant record at the moment for looking after all members of its community. Certainly, when this craven application comes up for discussion before the planning committee they can be sure that a lot of us will be watching to see what they do to Da Maria with extreme interest. We contacted the landlord for a comment, but it did not respond.
Da Maria, 87B Notting Hill Gate, London W11 3JZ (020 7792 4491). Meal for two, including drinks and service: £30-£60
Local hero: (from top) arancini; ancini; antipasto; braised meats with vegetables; spaghetti with th garlic and chilli; diavola pizza; zza; tiramisu; and ricotta tart