Brutto, 35-37 Greenhill Rents, London EC1M 6BN
Brutto: a little slice of Italy, striving for an authentic patchwork of regional influences, stitched with a thick Tuscan thread
I love summer, just not in the daytime and strictly after 8pm. The buzz of a warm night twinkling with the sounds of cutlery, ceramics and glass is something special- particularly in England. It’s a welcome change from the periodic smashing of these things, followed by someone screaming 'JUST LEAVE IT!’ whilst staggering about in their own sick and bits of spilt kebab.
Wading upstream through the clamouring densities of people in the process of this, we intentionally swerve the Lizzie Line- the idea being that the walk will help offset the damage we intend to do to ourselves. Now just a few streets away, it’s suddenly quiet- like the lull after an artillery barrage. Then gradually, the hum of a hostility-free summer’s night in motion comes into earshot; the roar of people eating, drinking, laughing and chatting starts to swell.
We turn the corner and thar she blows. It's down a little side street, away from the main drag that’s pocketed with swarms of revellers at each watering hole, next to Gordon Ramsay’s 'Street Burger’ that appears to be about as enticing as a morgue with the heating left on full whack. The tables outside Brutto, adorned with classic red and white checkered cloths, are gleaming with bottles at various levels, finished plates and half-finished people. Inside it's fizzing with the same vivacity as we return to try our luck as a walk-in again.
“Your time has come,” beams the chap on the front desk. If he only knew. We've been stalking this place for ages.
Somewhere between the marbled bar and the dark wooden interior, there’s a touch of Bugsy Malone about the place. I'm fully prepared for Fat Sam to suddenly appear, slip a twenty in my top pocket and gently but repeatedly slap my face, telling me that I'm a 'good kid'.
With the menu in my mitts, the ‘deep-fried dough ball cuddles’ leap off the page. They're crisp, fugly little comets that hold an incredibly light interior that tenderly yawns apart. Waves of prosciutto and a balm of stracchino come alongside, providing a ‘Build-your-Own’ experience that’s arguably a cocky start to things as it's a Nonna-grade portion.
I don’t think tonnato is something that I can physically resist and Brutto doesn't exactly come running to my aid in this regard. Roughly the thickness of red rizla, the pork has been sliced and placed so attentively and, while you might think I’m overstating this, just wait until you’ve had this dish served to you in rushed hacks, chucked about the plate as if it was an inconvenience to serve. It's a harrowing experience.
The briny dressing is judiciously slicked about, rigged with the saline charges of caperberry that complete the soapbox that these humble cold cuts need to start preaching the good word. Lowering the plate from my face, my only regret is that I wasn’t smart enough to cram a load of it into one of those reserved cuddles.
Two diners next to us ask the barman for his recommendations, both keen on something ‘meaty’. As if it’s some sort of tick, I begin to make a completely unprompted case for my beloved tonnato; my ever-patient Editor allowing my less attractive qualities run their course. Verging on unreasonably urbane, the barman then trounces my fawning explanation by condensing it to ‘delicate but substantial’ and it’s exactly that- I could learn a lot from Jack, the handsome bastard. Usually, my overstepping of unspoken behavioural boundaries is frowned upon in the outside world, but in Brutto’s lovingly curated- rather than simply contrived- atmosphere, it’s not. A conscious lack of formality will always pair well with good food and a drop- if for nothing else than to make someone like me more bearable.
It seems right, owing to its menu debut, that the egg macaroni with asparagus, peas and courgette is next. A summary of seasonal glory, the greens are cooked di un minuto still proud with snap and crunch, the peas popping tightly, the macaroni al dente all backed up with a big old stash pot of parmesan to be spooned at will.
An ardent lover of the delicious pest that Rome most likely gifted our island so long ago, the rabbit pappardelle is a must for anyone concerned about conservation. Silky, taught, flaxen ribbons coiling around thick shreds of rabbit cooked so slow and low, that it takes little effort to disintegrate beyond the teeth. Affirming satisfaction right up until the last turn of the fork, there’s the golden stock remaining that raises an eyebrow and motions a finger towards the remaining cuddle. Still crisp even now, I put the innards to work absorbing all the liquor it can- the flavour combination reminding me precisely of the kind of comfort a festival dumpling brings about.
How you’re supposed to pass up a dessert described as ‘ugly but good’ is lost on me. Meringue and hazelnut cookies play Princess Leia’s side buns to a scoop of proper flecked vanilla ice cream, shattering into oblivion around the edges, melting down into that tacky chew in the centre. Punctuated with toasty nuttiness, it's the crucial hit of sugar needed to help roll ourselves out of the door, down the street and onto the train.
“Noisy. Not fancy. Don’t expect too much…” reads the Instagram bio, right beneath the accolade of a Bib Gourmand. This is expectation management at its finest. Exclusively lit by mood lighting, which I put down to the napkins repurposed as lampshades, Brutto flexes a trope of romance that is rare, organic and yet anything but fluke. I would agree with the idea that it’s noisy, but that would imply an unpleasantness which isn’t something I can equate to the experience. The volume is generated by the conviviality that it’s designed to be a refuge for; a speakeasy for the hungry and dry-of-whistle, where people can indulge in that which softens the blow of a working week. It's a testament to owner Russell Norman's vision; of a little slice of Italy, striving for an authentic patchwork of regional influences, stitched with a thick Tuscan thread.
Deriving from the expression of 'brutto ma buono' meaning 'ugly but good', it's a playful assertion of humility that belies an unwavering self-belief in ability. Undoubtedly inspired by Jim Morrison’s philosophy of 'if you [c]ook them, they will come' [cit.‘Wayne’s World II'1993 NBC Films] it’s clearly worked a treat- the solid bookings don't lie.