I hate shopping almost as much as I love eating. Each and every time that Shaftesbury adds another restaurant tenant to its Kingly Court/Carnaby portfolio in Soho, I beam at the thought of the impressive restaurant line-up it has put together, then grimace at the realisation that soon I’ll be taking on cash-happy fashionistas, heads in phones and hell-bent on never wearing the same jeans twice, while making my way for a spot of lunch.
And so I have no one but myself to blame for the crowds endured before my visit to Pastaio at the beginning of the year. I’d arranged to meet my family for lunch after Christmas, and it was only as I popped my oblivious little head out of Oxford Circus tube station did I realise the horror I was about to partake in – it was the January sales. Headphones in and head down, I had no choice but to put on some pace and head south towards Carnaby Street, where, just off of shopping central sale hell, Stevie Parle’s latest restaurant sits like a saviour on Ganton Street.
Parle is doing some wonderful things in London. While so many restaurant businesses are focused on the scalability and fine-tuning of a single brand, his speciality is the creation and seamless delivery of what, on the surface, feel like single-site, independent restaurants. Many diners won’t realise that Dock Kitchen in Ladbroke Grove, Rotorino in Dalston, Craft in Greenwich, Sardine in N1, and Palatino in the City all have Parle’s involvement. The same goes for the newest edition, Pastaio. With the sales behind me and a fresh pasta station in front, I walked through the door and was quickly back to beaming again.
There are no reservations taken at Pastaio, so I was relieved to see that my dear mother had arrived before me and had already nabbed us a table, a bottle of cool Friulano and a small bowl of the ubiquitous Nocellara olives to nibble on. The interior of Pastaio is a little left field in that it doesn’t really feel like an Italian restaurant. But why should it? Long, canteen-like rows of tables and stools with booth seating at the rear are overlooked by a dazzlingly colourful mural on the back wall – almost a Pop art ode to pasta. It’s certainly in keeping with the Carnaby location, contributing to the relaxed, but hospitable, experience of the restaurant.
Alongside the Nocellaras we had some Coombeshead Farm sourdough with Pastaio olive oil (£3). This bread is from the bakery part of Tom Adams (Pitt Cue fame) and April Bloomfield’s (The Spotted Pig) Cornwall operation, which explains the three portions that were happily devoured (predominantly by my sister) over this sitting. If you’re worried about your carb intake, Pastaio probably isn’t for you. We also sampled the fried mozzarella, ’nduja and honey sandwich (£5.50) and, for good mozzarella measure, the buffalo mozzarella, olive oil, chilli and oregano (£7). The latter stood out – creamy and subtle, with a bit of buzz from the spice and herb. It would have been rude not to spread a little on the Coomeshead sourdough, so we did, and, content with the cheese fix, we looked to the pastas.
I could eat pasta every day of the week, so it’s a good thing that Pastaio is plonked in the middle of a shopping district. This is a menu that calls to me. Anti pasti, followed by pasta, followed by dessert – what could be better (other than more pasta)? Three people = three bowls, but I wish we could have sampled more. ‘Pastaio’ translates as ‘pasta maker’, of which there are many posted in the aforementioned open kitchen as you walk through the door. These chefs produce ‘fresh pasta #madebyhand’ (that’s the restaurant’s strapline you see) and it is glorious. On this occasion there was the wild mushrooms, garlic and olive oil tagliatelle (£11); the pesto, green beans and potato cassarecce (£9); and the malloreddus coated in a slow-cooked sausage sauce (£9.50). The malloreddus (a small, shell-like pasta, similar to gnocchi) could be eaten for hours on end, with the sausage sauce offering a richness of a ragout, but without being too heavy. In hindsight, three portions of this dish would have been a wonderful idea, particularly when washed down with a carafe of Nero d’Avola.
Desserts are tempting, with the likes of tiramisu; cannoli, ricotta, orange and saffron; and a chocolate and cherry tart all making compelling cases for further indulgence. However, we actually satisfied our sweet teeth elsewhere (sorry, Stevie). Unsurprisingly, another impressive business had just opened its doors down the road. Bread Ahead, Borough Market stalwarts of sugar and arguably the producers of the finest doughnuts in the world, moved into their first permanent site on Beak Street two days before our trip to Pastaio. The arrival of Bread Ahead is another example of the calibre of culinary capability being attracted to the Carnaby area. A vanilla doughnut and flat white later, and I was in such a sedated trance of satisfaction that no amount of sale seekers, bargain hunters or wound-up window shoppers could shake me from my bliss. Pastaio (and Bread Ahead), I thank you. I’ll most certainly be back.