Come Meet The Don At Donna Margherita, Clapham
11 Aug 2016
So proud of his Neapolitan heritage, owner and chef Gabriele Vitale has given birth to a restaurant that serves authentic dishes with no unnecessary flair, using simple ingredients and techniques that infuses his food with the tastiest of ingredients: time and attention. His website gives a whirlwind history of Naples, drawing connections to the various cultures that have influenced the city’s cuisine, as well as the story behind the ‘first pizza’ presented to Queen Margherita (after whom the restaurant is named).
I brought my own history to the dinner table. I grew up on Italian food, the only kind cooked in our house, having a bloodline connected to Sicily. My grandmother spent entire afternoons rolling hundreds of tiny gnocchi off a fork, baking biscotti, stuffing ravioli, and my grandfather simmered his sauce (we called it Grandpa’s Gold) filling the house for days with the aroma of meatballs frying.
Entering Donna Margherita, the delicious smells were wafting, with its interior dimly lit, like candlelight. Walls are covered with family photos and copper pots. We sat al fresco (under an awning), a practical adaptation for British weather.
I didn’t grow up only eating pizza, and you certainly won’t appreciate Neapolitan cuisine if you stick to a classic Margherita pizza (£10). Though I guarantee you’ll enjoy the unique Neapolitan way of eating it (as a triangular pocket) and the shockingly simple ingredients sourced from Italy. But look to the mains for the real surprise.
We were not the only ones ordering A’ Fritturin (£8.50), potato croquettes with parmesan, arancini with smoked cheese, polenta with salami. A bit lighter is the bruschetta: tender, crunchy bread made in-house topped with real olive oil and tomatoes.
One thing I learned from my grandmother was that good food takes time to make, so flavours have time to combine. The salsiccia in their Vesuvian Risotto is soaked in white wine for 24 hours then stirred into parmesan and smoked provolone (£11). Good food also takes no time at all. In fact, pasta is often overcooked, and al dente is the proper way, because it is digested more slowly. Our Penne Siciliana (£9.50) had satisfying grip to sink your teeth into each tube, with aubergines, mozzarella and sauce clinging to every ridge.
Save room. The tiramisu is rich, fluffy cream dolloped on a soaked cakey sponge but the real winner of the desserts is the pastiera, a wheat cake absolutely dripping in orange flower water and candied lemon peel with a layer of ricotta cheese.
The customers, who were mostly Italian or local to Clapham/Battersea, were more like relatives at a family dinner, served by friendly faces and led by Gabriele, a true source of energy and passion fuelling Donna Margherita, who reminded me of a Don commanding much deserved respect for his leadership.
Every single dish tasted like home to me. From the expertly rolled pasta, to the blistered bases of the Margherita pizza, all the way to the risotto which someone stood by and patiently stirred. Food tastes better when infused with time, whether long or short, and an obsession with authentic family recipes. I would have taken my Italian grandparents here every week.