The ‘Real’ Taste of Puglia at Terra Rossa, Islington
03 Apr 2019
While it’s true many fall back on this familiar trope – the ‘be transported to warmer climes’ thing – Terra Rossa firmly deserves the accolade. For its Puglian-born owner François Fracella grew up in Salento with head chef Annarita Inguscio tasked with recreating the delicious yet simple cooking of his childhood.
With a menu rooted in Cucina Povera (the poor kitchen), exquisite dishes from the sun-baked region – the heel of Italy – sing from their plates. As is often the case in Italian households, François’ life revolved around food. The son of a farmer, he recalls how he would help crush the tomato crop for passata. And so it makes sense that he wanted his own menu to be littered with regional specialities, all using impeccably sourced ingredients.
Ahead of our visit, I did what every other person does before eating out in 2019 – I googled it. Looking through the pictures on TripAdvisor, I was fascinated. I didn’t recognise a single dish. In an age where we have access to everything we could possibly want at the click of a button, this was deeply intriguing.
Arriving on a blustery Wednesday evening, we stepped inside, soothed by the charm of Southern Italy. Getting into the spirit of things, we embarked on the experience with Aperol spritz. It is cliché – but clichés are there for a reason –the troubles of London life melted, slowly, alongside the ice in our drinks.
Relaxed, hungry and eager, we began with a small bowl of traditional Puglian crackers/biscuits/I don’t know what. It didn’t matter. They were salty, deliciously moreish and teased hints of rosemary. Next came the burrata. Oh that beautiful blushing burrata! The knife sliced in as it oozed onto the honeyed roast peppers. A broad bean purée with wild chicory brushed up against lightly oiled toasted bread and filled a hankering for a real sturdy mouthful of comfort. I lied before – I did recognise one thing on the menu, the bruschetta, which my dining companion ordered, much to my chagrin. Obviously, that dissipated the minute he spared me a morsel. How can such a simple dish shine with so much flavour? Is the sun is hidden within those seasoned red beauties?
Aperol spritz finished, a gorgeously fruity Puglian Primativo and a light golden Agricola saw us through mains of fresh pasta. The signature Puglian pasta, orecchiette, was served with heritage yellow tomatoes, olives and broccoli purée. This is like nothing you’ve ever eaten, unless of course you’ve been to Puglia. Sweet, creamy, with flecks of salt, the fresh pasta marries it altogether like a respectable UN ambassador. The deeply rich buttery taste of the fresh gnocchi is cut through with clams, little pockets of fresh ocean, as the distinctive hum of saffron and hints of basil danced. We had to swap half way through in order to get the best of both worlds. Many people around us ordered, the Paccheri Al Ragu Di Mare, which swaps a traditional meat ragu for one made with octopus. It looked divine.
We couldn’t possibly have eaten dessert. But we did it anyway, at Francois’ insistence (so charming and quietly confident). The millefeuille dessert, created using creamy mascarpone cheese and fresh strawberries, was a summer garden party of dreams. The tiramisu was exactly what you want it to be – boozy, creamy, indulgent. One last thing. Terra Rossa’s wine list is almost exclusively Italian, and even includes premium wines available by the glass via Coravin. (Side note – how brilliant is Coravin?)
It’s probably worth mentioning that this place has fully-retractable front-terrace windows that means dining alfresco is possible come summer. What a treat. Before then, come to watch the fresh pasta being rolled in the window – restaurant theatre at its best.
As one would expect from a neighbourhood restaurant, prices are reasonable. Alongside the a la carte menu, there’s a three-course fixed price menu (available seven days a week) at £28, inclusive of a glass of prosecco, plus you can enjoy two courses at lunch, Monday to Friday, for just £15.50.
We reluctantly got up to leave several hours later. But mark my words – when we feel the need for some much-needed R&R, we won’t be getting the suitcases out. We’ll be booking our next visit to Terra Rossa. Meravigliosa!