Aldo Zilli at San Carlo

December 6, 2012

It may be freezing outside but I’m sitting here nice and warm following one of the great lunches.  I was fortunate enough to be invited as a guest to try out some of the dishes coming out of a new partnership between ‘sleb chef Aldo Zilli and the San Carlo group.

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Aldo Zilli at San Carlo, Leicester

Zilli sold off his London restaurants earlier this year, blaming greedy landlords for turning Soho into yet another chain zone. He told me today he had been going to take a year off but was persuaded by Carlo di Stefano to help him out in developing his cicchetti concept. “I respect Carlo as one of the best operators in the Italian restaurant business,” said Zilli.  “Back in Venice, cicchetti really just means food you’ll have in a bar – the Italian tapas. He’s taking that idea and moving it on  – and I’m happy to work with him to take it to another level. That means motivating the kitchen staff and encouraging them to realise you don’t have to mess around with this food – you must let the ingredients do the talking.”

So at San Carlo, Leicester today we were treated to a hugely impressive range of dishes, starting with a gently sweet and sour Sicilian caponata – slow cooked mediterranean vegetable stew.

Squid with chilli

Squid with chilli

Then simply fried calamari with chilli – succulent with gentle slow-burn background heat and then some thinly-sliced raw porcini and parmesan.  This was lovely, earthy cuisine that will put you off Pizza Hut for life. Ironically the next plate was a kind of pizza – and one of the very best dishes I’ve ever had. Squares of bread grilled with raddichio, melted gorgonzola, white truffle and walnuts. Simply done but those ingredients really did talk and will live in the memory for some time.

Zilli made his name as a seafood chef and it kept coming.  Thick fillets of gurnard were simply grilled and supplied with a stunning buttery sauce of shrimp and capers. Beetroot risotto (one of my very favourite dishes) came with sweetly roasted scallops and al dente orecchiette pasta with clams and more truffles. I’ve pretty much given up cooking monkfish as I find there’s such a narrow window between under and over cooking. Our version had been left a bit too long for my taste, but the dressing of fennel and sambuca was great.  And I nearly forgot, an awesome side dish of fondant artichoke – unpeeled, thinly sliced jerusalem ‘chokes cooked in stock and butter that was reduced to a fudgy richness. Quite wonderful. We finshed up with delicious souped-up pannettone – sliced and layered with a mascapone and marsala cream and forest fruits and topped with some zabaglione brulee. Not a huge amount of cooking there but supreme comfort food at Christmas time.

It’s some time since I’ve been to San Carlo – I liked the food but found the atmosphere a bit boistrous for my liking. Aldo says these dishes and others like them will now be appearing as specials  – as long as they can keep up the standard when the famous chef is not on the pass, a good reason for going back I’d say.

Gurnard with shrimp and caper sauce

Gurnard with shrimp and caper sauce

Aldo panettone

Panettone

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