It happened that I was walking down Redchurch Street in Shoreditch, of an afternoon urban wander, and was stopped in my tracks by a window display of fresh yellow pasta. Serrated squares of ravioli; circular nests of tagliatelle. The sign said Burro e Salvia. I went in. Behind the counter a young woman was carefully folding a green tortellino with delicate fingers. In a further room I could see a few tables. It seemed to be a traiteur-restaurant hybrid.
‘I’m hungry,’ I said.
‘I’m sorry, the kitchen is not open again until six,’ said the woman in an Italian accent. ‘I can give you a lasagna to take away.’
‘I’ll come back,’ I said, looking at the menu: carbonara with asparagus, egg, guanciale, pecorino; strozzapreti with pesto of sundried tomatoes, almonds, ricotta, capers and oregano; orecchiette with green peas, burrata and crispy proscuitto.
‘Is it true that you have to be Italian to make pasta?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know!’ laughed the woman, warm and friendly, ‘but we are all Italians here.’
Gaia Enria opened Burro e Salvia three years ago. She came to London from Italy more than a decade ago to work in public relations and communications and noticed the trend towards hand crafted and artisanal.
‘I come from Piedmont, the home of the slow food movement,’ she told me. ‘It’s part of my culture. My mother would take me to pasta shops to buy gnocchi, tagliatelle. These were small makers who were passionate about food and about pasta. They are called pastificio and the best ones were always the ones who made the pasta almost entirely by hand.’
She admits she rarely goes out to eat Italian, — ‘sometimes to Zucca or the River Cafe.’ There are plenty of places to get a decent plate of pasta in London but generally that’s all they are: decent. Not great, not amazing. Pay £40 or £50 for a bowl of carbonara, two glasses of red wine and an espresso and go home on the tube thinking: why didn’t I just make this myself at home and eat it more comfortably in front of the telly?
Enria had an idea. She talked to her friends about it.
‘It was easy to find a group of friends to be investors,’ she told me, ‘because everyone, especially the Italians living in London love pasta. They would say, yes, it’s true we can’t find proper fresh pasta. Not the supermarket industrialized pasteurized pasta, but pasta made fresh by hand — you can really appreciate the difference.’
She went back to Italy and visited all the grandmothers she could find and learned the tricks and techniques of the craft of pasta. She said she was one of many in her generation in Italy who are becoming as passionate about pasta as their nona and bringing more creativity to the tradition.
Last year Enria opened another branch, with a larger restaurant section in the far environs of East Dulwich. One July evening I took a mildly full train there from London Bridge. I had never been to East Dulwich before. It is pretty and leafy and quiet. As in Shoreditch, the window of Burro e Salvia was given over to counters where pasta was rolled and cut and shaped. Large wooden boards, rolling pins, two pasta machines, drifts of dusting flour and ranks of hand-cut ravioli. Enria told me that was part of the plan, to display the process and entice the customer.
The interior was clean minimalist, several shades of grey, accents of ochre yellow. It felt like a shop. It was seven thirty on a Monday and no one else was there except one other table of a mother, teenage daughter and grandmother. I asked for a glass of prosecco and an antipasto of anchovies with bread and butter. The anchovies came in their tin, the bread was good and perfectly nudging toasty. I enjoyed very much the saltiness of the anchovies washed down with the sweet fizz. At the adjacent table the three generational women were talking about multiple plot lines in novels they had read.
My eyes wandered. Behind the counter was a shelf with a simple inventory of Italian basics: jars of artichokes under oil, a giant wheel of mortadella, a leg of prosciutto, a purple cylinder of bresaola and plastic pouches of house-made pasta sauce: tomato, sausage, pesto. A Deliveroo courier came in and took away two brown paper bags of ready-made dinner. Two Italian women came in and sat at the counter and began to banter in Italian with the handsome pasta maker.
He had suggested I order the potato and thyme-filled pasta with octopus, cherry tomatoes, courgette and olives. But I opted instead for their signature dish, agnolotti Cavour, meat and spinach filled ravioli with butter and sage. It arrived in a small white bowl, a proper small Italian (primo piatti) portion. The ravioli were perfectly made, thin and densely packed, well seasoned, a little nutmeggy; perfect little parcels lapped in sage butter. I asked for parmesan, which cost £1 extra, and then almost (not quite) regretted the addition because it over salted the clean unctuous experience of each ravioli that were nonetheless disappearing, one bite, two bites, savour, rest, prosecco sip, repeat, to the bare white bottom of the bowl. You can taste the pasta of great pasta, a toothsomeness between cushion and al dente, a certain afterglow against your palate of — of — what? I don’t know, ‘dough’, is such an inadequate word. I sat there happily contemplating which word might work and caught sight of the server lining up three glasses on the counter and crushing juniper berries and sage leaves into the ice.
‘Oh what’s that!’ I asked.
‘It’s our special gin and tonic,’ he said
‘Can I have one?’
And just like that, a lone, slightly boring Monday evening was transformed by Italian warmth. The server told me his name was as Luca. I have forgotten the names of the two women, one was from Rome, the other from Naples. Another Italian arrived, kissed everyone hello, and introduced himself as Frederico. It turned out he was responsible for marketing the Solo Wild gin from Sardinia that Luca was mixing with Fentimans herbal tonic.
‘Gin from Sardinia?’ I made a face. It is all very well Italians bringing pasta to London, but gin?
‘Think about it,’ said Luca, ‘what is the flavouring for gin?’
‘Which grows abundantly in Sardinia,’ he pointed out.
The Italian gin and tonic was clean and herbal and generous and lasted a long happy time. Luca made Frederico up a plate of antipasto, a slab of pecorino, artichokes, slices of mortadella. The two Italian women ordered a bottle of wine and the octopus pasta. We got talking. They had all been living in London for several years. We talked about Brexit and labyrinths of Tory corridors. We talked about opera, ‘you have to be on drugs the first time you go to an opera,’ insisted Luca and about how pasta was wired into Italian DNA.’I remember the smell from my childhood,’ said the woman from Rome, ‘the flour in the air, the sound of the rolling pin.’
It was true, somehow, Enria admitted to me, that almost all of her pasta making team are Italian. ‘From a cultural perspective, we grew up with memories of our grandmothers making pasta, making ravioli. ‘We all have stories to tell which are as important as the finished product. Burro e Salvia also runs popular pasta workshops. Enria also said that almost all of her team are woman. ‘We call ourselves sfogline. It’s the term for the ladies who roll out the pasta. Unlike being a chef, pasta making is 90 per cent a female process. Women have smaller hands, a more gentle touch. I’m still looking for that man who can make it,’ she laughed.
Luca told me I should have the peach dessert and, looking over enviously at the octopus pasta the women were demolishing, this time I did what he suggested and tucked into half a baked peach spread with a lid of peach pulp mixed with cocoa and crumbled amaretti biscuits. ‘This dessert is my madeleine,’ said Frederico. It was very good, not sweet or creamy, but rather restrained and elegant.
We talked more, we laughed. I wondered at the irony of an Italian corner of East Dulwich, post-Brexit island in the capital of Remain, and at the convivial conjunction of pasta and Italians that I had thought was only possibly in actual Italy. Luca poured us all a glass of thick magenta coloured myrtle liquor from Sardinia and we toasted the serendipity of struck-up conversations on a summer evening. I was very glad I had not stayed at home and made my standby tomato spaghetti and watched the news. I swayed out into the sapphire suburban night. The digestif kept me warm waiting forty minutes for a train back to London Bridge. It only took me two hours to get home.