Once known as ‘Little Italy’ given its community of Italian migrants, Clerkenwell was the perfect place for The Clove Club Restaurant Group to open its ambitious trattoria, Luca. The opening of this very-Italian, slightly-British restaurant at the beginning of 2017 was much anticipated and those highs were met with conviction. The setting plays no small part, especially when decked out for Christmas: a window-sized wreath, a glorious bar adorned with pomegranates and towering bottles of aged wine, the open kitchen. And of course the food and drink: a truly Italian wine list and the kind of pasta you tell everyone you know they seriously need to try. A few years later, post-pandemic, Luca is still full of those highs.
Head chef here is Robert Chambers, formerly of L’Enclume and Loncanda Locatelli, where he perfected the art of pasta-making. Raised by his Italian grandparents in Luton, Chambers is the embodiment of Italian-British fusion. From a young age, he had the idea of opening a restaurant that served a more traditional trattoria menu. And where better than Clerkenwell? When Italians first arrived in the UK in large numbers in the early 1800s, following the breakdown of the French Empire, they grouped together and found a home in Clerkenwell. Close to Smithfield, the area was home to a meat market offering casual employment. This not only marked the beginning of a more multi-cultural London, but the growth of Italian cuisine in the capital. Pasta hit the city’s palette for the first time and the first trattoria opened in 1803.
A twist on the traditional trattoria and not a fine dining restaurant, Luca sits somewhere in-between, serving refined Italian cuisine in a casual but gorgeous setting. That sense of age, mixed with modern design, plays through in Luca’s interior. Considered to be one of the most beautiful restaurants in London, its unassuming very green exterior – featuring exposed brickwork, natural plaster and warm oak – lend the restaurant a sense of antiquity. Step inside and make your way past the marble bar, and you reach a modern space with double-height ceilings and train-carriage style booths, filled with natural light and a cacophony of ambient chatter.
Also a feast for the eyes is the open kitchen. Chambers orchestrates his team in full sight. The pass purposely sits to the side of the dining room so as to not dominate the look and feel of the restaurant.
As we were a private party of 8, this evening we had the pleasure of dining in Luca’s Garden Room on their Christmas feasting menu (£90 per person) – a menu that will get anyone into the festive spirit. The food at Luca is unmistakably Italian, but Chambers pays homage to his British roots by using local and seasonal produce.
To open, we were served with some very juicy Marinated Olives and Antipasta: a Salad of roasted beetroot, poached pear, radicchio tardivo and hazelnuts, and another of Purple sprouting broccoli with lovage and preserved lemon salsa verde. The broccoli was full of flavour and panache, with the punchy salsa providing a kick of flavour and saltiness. The radicchio was a little to bitter for me and the pear not as ripe as I’d hope but the beetroot was seasonally sweet and a feast for the eyes.
Next up, was the pasta, what Luca is known for. The chefs make the pasta daily in-house and the vegan offering today was Rigatoni with spiced chickpea, tropea onions and hen of the woods. The aesthetics and very al dente texture were wonderful. A gleaming bowl of Autumnal pasta tubes that melt in the mouth, this felt like upscale country comfort food – a blend of trad-rustic and fancy. The chickpeas were out of site so I assume they’d been blended to form the creamy beige sauce that seemed to envelop each pasta piece – though a touch more sauce would’ve been welcome. The seasonal mushrooms lent a woody note – though more tart onions and mushrooms would have been welcome too.
Secondo was Roasted celeriac, castelluccio lentils, savoy cabbage and chanterelles. What felt like the first Christmas plate of the season, the lentils were cooked to perfection. Enjoyed alongside the savoy cabbage, the texture was melt-in-the-mouth. The dish showcased great technical skill. The celeriac confirmed my views on this winter root: a little too heavy and potato-like for me. Not a favourite.
For dolce, I had the pleasure of enjoying one of my favourite Italian grains: Warm polenta cake with spiced winter citrus. Served with a thyme-lemon coconut yogurt, this was an absolute delight. Grainy with just the right amount of bite, yet moist thanks to the bitter sweet citrus glaze, the cake was offset by a very fresh yogurt. A seasonal joy to finish on a high.
Dining at Luca feels like an experience: the setting, the service and the modern Italian food. All exude a feeling of warmth, ideal on a winter’s evening in the run-up to Christmas. Luca isn’t a spot to come on a budget, but if you’re sans expense account, the bar is set up for more casual bites and aperitivo. For slick cooking in design-mag surroundings, Luca ticks all the boxes.
Luca, 88 St John St, London EC1M 4EH