Isola by San Carlo review: Italian with an island twist

By Vicki Power | 26 Feb 2022 | Indulge

A buzzing new West End brasserie offers bona fide Italian served with the colours and flavours of Sicily and Sardinia

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As my cocktail arrived – an Instagramable confection of the prettiest pink with a giant smoke bubble on top – I suspected that I was in for a different dining experience than those generally afforded by the UK’s Italian restaurants. This was no common-or-garden cosmo sat before me, but a special concoction in which the Cointreau had been replaced by Amaro Santoni, top-drawer Italian botanical liqueur that gave the drink a divine herbal bouquet I hadn’t expected. 

I was dining in Isola by San Carlo, the latest addition to the Distefano family’s chic chain of restaurants in the UK and Middle East. Situated in Carluccio’s former premises in London’s St Christopher’s Place, it offers elevated Italian cuisine with a menu of classics as well as imaginative dishes redolent of Italy’s islands – hence the name. 

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The décor will catch your eye long before the food arrives to divert your attention. In-vogue design company Fettle has taken great care to recreate the style of an Italian brasserie, with dark wood, marble-topped tables and traditional Italian rattan chairs. Soft sorbet-coloured accents abound, providing pops of colour inspired by the lemons, pistachios and prickly pears of the owners’ Sicilian heritage. Vibrant modern artwork brings more brightness to the main dining room that seats 200. 

The ambience was buzzy and busy. We could have been in a modern Milan eatery except for the temperatures outside. But the chill winter weather failed to deter diners packing the 50-cover wraparound porch outdoors, carefully designed to suggest the terrace of a Sicilian villa, with lush greenery. 
 

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After passing the Rosa Pink marble bar and making a mental note to return with mates for an aperitivo one day, we kicked off the evening with cocktails at our table, mine that delectable Akropolitan with the bubble dome on top. My partner’s Old Fashioned Don Salvatore was a spin on the traditional whisky cocktail but featuring chocolate bitters and maraschino liqueur, with a slice of dried orange as a gorgeous garnish. They married beautifully with a bowl of Nocellara Olives and a selection of homemade focaccia and Sardinian ‘music bread’ [a traditional crispy flabread] and bought us time as we considered which dishes to try. 

The menu is packed full of Italian favourites like spaghetti vongole and rigatoni carbonara, as well as a half dozen pizzas with a crispy and light crust made from Naples’ famous Caputo flour. Authentic Italian ingredients reflects the attention to detail to deliver food that will instantly transport you to an Italian holiday of lazy days and long al fresco lunches. Among the restaurant’s signature specialties that deliver Italy’s island cuisine to your plate are Spaghetti Granseola – spaghetti with crab for two people – and Luganica alla Tradizione Isolana, pork and fennel sausage with red grapes, rosemary and red wine sauce. 

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We decided to go old school and indulge in the truffle dishes on offer, a northern Italian favourite of the Distefanos as well as us. I had a sublime plate of tartufo e pecorino ravioli in a creamy sauce with black truffles, and my partner fresh tagliatelle with a generous amount of porcini e tartufo. In both cases the pasta was fresh, homemade and the prodigious use of black truffles gave the dishes a rich depth of flavour. 

After such a rich starter I went for a lighter main course from the islands of Gamberi Sicilia, prawns cooked in garlic, chilli and olive oil. The little creatures were cooked perfectly – leaving their shells on makes them more flavourful even if it left me with garlicky hands from a messy de-shelling ritual. But our waiter, the very attentive Matteo, ensured I had a wet cloth as backup for my napkin, and all was well. My dining partner raved about his Halibut con Vongole served with baby clams, samphire and Pachino tomatoes, deeming the subtle combination of seafood and samphire a triumph. 

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Matteo, who knows a thing or two about wine, chose us a fruity and floral Sella & Mosca Vermentino from Sardinia to accompany the main course; a brilliant match for the seafood that I could have drunk all night on its own. Another indication of Isola’s devotion to good food and wine is a wine list that buffs will revel in, offering dozens of reds and whites according to region. Whether you want a Barolo from Piemonte, a Falanghina from Campania or an array of Super-Tuscans (one of which will set you back £540), Isola’s wine cellar can deliver it up. 

To accompany my prawns and wine I couldn’t resist a side dish of zucchine fritte, a decadent dish of fried courgette sticks in a melty batter that proved addictive. I ate so many vegetable sticks, in fact, that I left myself no room for dessert, an ever-present peril when it comes to Italian food. The options for afters that waiters were parading by our table looked delectable – the tiramisu and crispy cannoli looked particularly alluring. My partner, whose sweet tooth mysteriously endures despite intensely calorific meals, ordered a torta al pistachio, a green mousse cake that he reported was airy and bursting with fresh pistachio flavour. 

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As you’d expect of any Italian eatery, a first-class espresso was delivered to bookend the meal. Then the solicitous Matteo offered us each glass of limoncello to round off our experience in true southern Italian style. 

Isola is a little slice of la dolce vita in the heart of the West End, a haven for exhausted shoppers and a magnet for those craving authentic Italian food in a chic metropolitan setting. A classy destination for those who understand good Italian food. 

As much as I savoured my first visit to Isola, I did find myself in the grip of envy when one of the diners next to us ordered a pizza covered with prosciutto and Parmesan. As its aromas wafted over to our table, it confirmed that this would be the first of many dinners I’d eat there. 

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Isola by San Carlo, located at 3-8 Barrett St, London W1U 1AY, is open every day from noon. To book a table, visit sancarloisola.co.uk or phone 0207 846 8604.