Located on Peckham’s foodie haven, Bellenden Road, Artusi was high up on my South London eateries to try. Opened in March 2014, Artusi is an Italian-inspired, neighbourhood restaurant. And on a warm summer’s evening this was an ideal setting for seasonal, fresh Italian cuisine and an Aperol Spritz of course. Lucky for my companion and I, one of their two walk-in tables – for which booking is not required – was located al fresco on Bellenden Road’s pavement. Given how insanely popular Artusi is, we were lucky to nab a spot here, although I was disappointed that their high bench seats overlooking the open kitchen were full.
In many ways, Artusi feels like South London’s answer to the marvellous Trullo, which was opened in Highbury in June 2010 by graduates of the River Café and Jamie Oliver’s 15. It’s also a neighbourhood restaurant, but one which punches well above its weight, with pastas made by hand shortly before service. Indeed, I wonder whether Artusi is named after Italian food enthusiast Pellgrino Artusi? This character published a book entitled “Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well” in 1891. Artusi’s books marked a turning point in Italian cuisine. Whilst previous Italian cookbooks had genuflected to France, once word got round about this innovative compendium of home-style Italian recipes, copies started circulating fast. Italian bookshops still stock it today.
Chef Jack Beer’s menu – only to be found on a chalkboard by the entrance – is confidently simple. Indeed, as my companion pointed out, what is so great about the restaurant is its minimal menu, reflecting how Artusi only serve ingredients they’re able to source fresh that day. Produce is sourced from select suppliers and London markets, and their wine is from a range of Italian regions and producers.
Comprised of just a handful of well-priced seasonal dishes, the menu includes starters, pastas, larger meat and fish plates and a couple of deserts – which tonight were nutella ice-cream (which my companion was highly tempted by), and a cherry, vanilla ice-cream and chocolate bowl which most of the restaurant seems to be ordering. The simple menu always features pasta made that day. Embarrassingly, when I asked the waiter if they had any more vegetarian pastas other than spaghetti and he replied in the negative; he responded to my surprised face by having to remind me that they prepare their homemade pasta fresh everyday.
Whilst my companion ordered their Spaghetti (£10.50), I asked the chef to prepare me a Vegetable plate (£10.50). It turned out to be a sight of beauty, made of courgette puree, courgette ribbons, lentils, chopped beef heart tomatoes, rainbow chard and mozzarella. To my delight, the mozzarella added to the creaminess of the well-cooked lentils, which combined perfectly with vividly green and silky smooth courgette puree – the highlight of the dish for me. So simple, yet so bold, I’m sure the vegetables had a wonderful whack of garlic. The vegetables were also dressed with the freshest of peppery olive oils. None of the ingredients obliterated anything else; nothing was confusing and everything worked in harmony. The quality of the food did Artusi’s name justice. Indeed, my dish – as I informed the waiter – should feature on the menu. Delicious ingredients treated with the minimum of fuss.
My companion’s pasta dish was similarly simple but exquisite, tossed with fresh summery tomatoes and a garlic and butter sauce with herbs. Even the pasta bowl it arrived in amazed me. She also enjoyed their house bread and butter, which I later learnt is sourdough from Brickhouse around the corner. It had a crusty edge, but a chewy and soft interior.
The décor is equally laid back and minimal: a slate-grey ceiling and white walls, unadorned tables, and a open kitchen. And the prices are reasonable – for this type of quality, there’s no question you’d be paying close to double these prices somewhere comparable north of the river, whether at Trullo or Angela Hartnett’s Café Murano.
Artusi has further turned up the heat on Peckham’s already thriving Bellenden Road culinary scene, but it’s also an unpretentiously low-key place with charming and knowledgeable staff, interesting drinks and excellent food. I’m delighted to learn that chef Jack Beer was previously chef not only at the Clove Club, but at another local favourite, Peckham Bazaar.
If Signore Artusi were still around, he might just like Artusi as much as we did. Artusi has certainly given me another reason to move to Peckham/East Dulwich (as did the drive home through Lordship Lane and its buzzing restaurant scene featuring another pasta hot-spot Burro e Salvia and of course Franco Manca). It’s easy to say that Italians “do” restaurants better than any other nation but Artusi can make you believe it. There’s something about the spirit of it, the love of ingredients and the innate sense of hospitality that unifies into a glorious whole.
Artusi, 161 Bellenden Road, London, SE15 4DH