Cinquecento: electric atmosphere and rustic food in the heart of West London
This adorable, authentic pizza restaurant aims for the lofty goal of food 'Just Like Nonna Used to Make' - and passes with flying colours
There’s an idea that the only place you’ll get authentic Italian food is in a traditional restaurant whose décor hasn’t changed since 1975; where an ancient nonna toils in the kitchen who’s been making tagliatelle by hand since the war. Never mind the battered old tables, savour the food.
Yet it’s a fallacy that it’s only in eateries best described as old school that Italian food is at its best. In cities across Italy and the world, Italian food that is delizioso is available in restaurants that are also sleek contemporary spaces offering eye-catching design and an enjoyable 21st-century dining experience.
Cinquecento (which means 500, the temperature of the pizza ovens) is one such Italian eatery offering traditional Italian food, with branches in three well-heeled London neighbourhoods – Portobello Road, Notting Hill Gate and Chelsea. On a hot summer’s evening we visited the latter, and turning the corner into its Cale Street location felt a little like arriving on a Roman mini-piazza – it’s situated on a little square in which diners were enjoying food and Aperol Spritzes al fresco while delivery scooters zipped by.
The pizza and pasta restaurant’s tagline, ‘Just Like Nonna Used to Make,’ certainly holds true. The Neapolitan pizzas, made of dough fermented for 48 hours, come out of the pizza oven fluffy and light rather than stodgy like so many currently offered up by high-end pizza chains. A quick scan of the menu will tell you that the restaurant sets its store by the quality of its ingredients: even if, like me, you don’t know the significance of DOP (Denomination Protected Origin) or stone-crushed 00 flour or the taste of a Vesuvian San Marzano tomato compared to a common-or-garden variety, it’s reassuring that those in the know at Cinquecento take this stuff seriously. You can taste the quality of what’s on offer. And they cater for current eating crazes, too, with gluten-free and vegan pizzas on offer.
The Chelsea restaurant is something of a Tardis. A pale blue and brown Victorian building with sash windows reveals itself to have a roomy interior over two storeys. The ground floor is dominated by the pizza oven and workstation where the pizzaioli craft the goods: their chatter to each other and customers (and occasional singing, I’m told) adds to the lively vibe, as does the near-constant march of delivery drivers arriving to pick up takeaway pizza.
But this is a pizzeria worth going out for – industrial-chic lighting hangs from the ceiling and tasteful modern tiles adorn some walls and counters, contributing to an understated contemporary vibe with a nod to the motherland. Attention is paid to finer details – the wine glasses are made of gorgeous textured glass and our food arrived on Churchill vintage plates in florals and traditional pattens, an homage to the very English neighbourhood in which we sat.
We opted for a table tucked behind the front door in the window and ordered a glass of Gavi di Gavi and a half-carafe of a decent Sicilian red. The wine list is dominated by Italian favourites including pinot grigio and valpolicella, but if you wanted to indulge yourself there are luxe options like Amarone (£100) and a French 2012 Mersaux at £140. There are also a half dozen cocktails – Negroni, bellini and Campari – that a sip of will transport you instantly to an apres ski bar in Cortina or a Capri beach.
The menu of starters is vast, offering the obligatory bruschetta and Italian cured meats as well as fried mini-pizzas and arancinetti (little Sicilian rice balls). We ordered the Tagliere Vegetariano to share. Its mix of grilled vegetable, cheeses and bread arrived on a charming little wooden table and was a platter of top-quality aubergine, courgette and red peppers griddled to smoky perfection in a light dressing of olive oil and salt. The accompanying artisan bread was heavenly: thin, chewy and salty.
Although a handful of pasta dishes on the menu looked appetising – lasagne and gnocchi served three ways – we’d heard raves about the pizza. There are 22 on offer with ingredients like Calabrian 'nduja, wild capers and truffle oil. I ordered the Sicilia on which was scattered fior di latte mozzarella, fried aubergine and Sicilian salted ricotta shavings – the salty and mild cheeses were a perfect match and the pizza amounted to a lot of quality for its £11.50 price tag. My other half had the Burrata, a rich affair featuring the creamiest burrata from Puglia as well as Parmesan shavings. After the cheese starter it was all so rich that we ended up with a few slices left over to be boxed up for an indulgent lunch.
Despite maxing out on dairy products during our first two courses, we couldn’t resist a traditional tiramisu for dessert. It was the right choice: it was lusciously creamy undercut with a little kick of coffee. We finished off our meal with a couple of spiky espressos.
Everything we’d eaten at Cinquecento – in its chic modern surroundings – was simple, high quality food, beautifully executed, which is what the best Italian cooking achieves. Nonna would certainly approve.