With its unassuming awning and ramshackle roadside seating, you might not give Donna Margherita a second glance. Set on my very local Lavender Hill, although open since 2003, Donna Margherita seems to have retained its local ethos, attracting a crowd of mainly nearby SW11 residents and very promisingly, Italian expats who know a bona fide venue when they see one – definitely a sign of any good trattoria.
Set up by Gabriele Vitale and his brothers, this place takes great Neapolitan pride in the warmth of their homeland – both its people and of course, the food. Importing (organic) ingredients from Naples and crafting wood-fired oven pizzas to rival any in London, after tasting their terrific, chewy and bubbly, charred-edge pizza crusts, I proudly proclaimed their pizzas to be among London’s best – certainly equal to Zia Lucia’s and Santa Maria’s, and far more authentic as compared with those of Homeslice and the ever-expanding Franco Manca.
This place oozes authenticity. It has a family-run vibe and pays excellent honour to Naples through its pizzas, the passion and enthusiasm of its family, and of course, the tomatoes from heaven. Although the service is a bit slow and the staff may well have forgotten about us sitting out on the terrace on occasion, their lack of fuss and absence of the need to exude “trendiness” just adds to the authenticity and resulting excellence of this place.
The wide-ranging menu makes for a very good read, leaving you spoilt for choice. Indeed, my companion was torn between ordering a selection of their starters as cicchetti and opting for a pizza proper. After my very enthused encouragement, we ordered the latter, specifically Donna Margherita itself (£10.90) – the very best pizza on any menu for me with tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, E.V. (extra virgin) olive oil and fresh basil – alongside a bianco Funghi and Rucola (£10.90) – a combination of wild mushrooms, mozzarella, fresh rocket, parmesan shavings and truffle-infused olive oil.
Although I too had my doubts about the quality of their pizzas, the end product proved my doubts very misplaced. Tasting absolutely authentic, the pizzas arrived littered with smoky bubbles that crunched against the roof of the mouth to release sudden puffs of the smoky oven’s flavour. The owner proudly explained the reasons behind this winning texture with great pride: the chef had recently developed a “healthy” dough made from Type A flour, a spin-off from the comparatively heavy double zero variation. It gave the pizzas a very light and digestible finish. The flavours also successfully married sharpness and saltiness.
Alongside fellow diners – from the animated Italian families to Battersea-based young professionals – I felt like I could have been sitting on the backstreet of Naples. It’s not just the food that’s evocative; there’s also a palpable rustic character and atmosphere about the place that is equally so, think shelves brimming with vino and speciality Italian foods such as olive oils, breads and pastas, which are available to purchase. It’s little wonder that Donna Margherita is busy every night of the week, and more importantly busy with Gabriele’s own compatriots. Luckily though (for me, at least) it retains its hidden charm.
Donna Margherita, 183 Lavender Hill, London SW11 5TE