UN­DER THE VOL­CANO

DA MARIA

The Observer Magazine - - RESTAURANTS -

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

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