Apparently the oldest Italian in London (unless you count Antonio Carluccio – *zing*), Il Portico is a tucked away gem of an eatery that would be filled with museum-based tourists if it wasn’t for two things: it’s hard to spot, and it’s a bit more upmarket than your usual chain restaurant such as Casa della Pizza or Pasta Shitty Vino.
If those places are Joe Pesci in a string vest, this is more like Isabella Rossellini in a ball gown. But sometimes you want Pesci, sometimes you want Rossellini; it’s all a matter of mood, of course. If you do feel like the latter, the family-run Il Portico does its level best to welcome you in such as way that you imagine your tastebuds – and wallet – are going to be more involved here.
In terms of the room, it feels very cosy yet private, with simple two-by-two tables in a long line, all except the initial flower-festooned entryway table which draws your eye immediately away from other people who might not want to be gawped at.
On my visit – with family members from Sheffield in tow – the co-owner promptly seated, greeted and treated us with his own ‘cheeky chappy’ thoughts on Sheffield Wednesday, Henderson’s relish and – if it hadn’t have been so busy – probably also The Full Monty, cutlery, snooker, Jarvis Cocker, Joe Cocker, hills, and coal mines. Problem is, he was very funny and we all laughed, so he wins.
So, already I like the place, and looking to the menu, it keeps getting better. Antipasti includes simple combos (asparagus with Parmigiano; marinated peppers and artichokes; proscuitto, speck and buffalo mozzarella etc) as well as more fishy numbers (grilled squid with garlic and oyster mushrooms; sardines with garlic; king prawns in a white wine reduction), all around the £9 mark.
Primi courses, available to start or as a main, showcase pasta, potato gnocchi and risotto at their core, coupled with options that include roast veal, aubergines, fresh basil pesto and crab, clams or prawns. Ranging between £10-15 for a main course version, there was certainly plenty of food from what we saw on neighbouring tables.
Alas, my team only had room for a secondi – the main course of main courses – so we dived in. Most of the dishes are very much a traditional meat and vegetables/greens affair, which is something that can be limited in other mainstream Italian joints I’ve tried. Thus I was keen to dive into veal escallops layered with prosciutto, sage and white wine sauce, which turned out to be succulent and richly flavoured, going terrifically with a recommended side order of wilted spinach. The rack of lamb was also suitably impressive – perhaps wanting a little more time to fall off the bone – but nevertheless intense thanks to its Barolo and rosemary base. More delicate was the Cornish sea bream, roasted with sea salt and lemon, and accompanied with a side order of excellent courgette fritters.
All three dishes came in around £17 each (the whole range is £13-£26 approximately), which with side orders on top (you do need them) made it about £20 a pop. Very filling though, so in my mind definitely worth it. Along with a nice bottle of Soave (picked using the infamous third-wine-down-on-menu rule), the whole experience was great value for money when considering the quality of the food, and the excellent service.
While I still believe Italian cuisine excels at the most basic level, Il Portico now is firmly on my list of recommendations when you want something just that little bit more special.
277 Kensington High Street
Tel: 020 7602 6262