A FRIEND of mine joked the other day that since the runaway success of Jamie Oliver’s cavernous Italian restaurant on George Square, the only growth industry in Glasgow has been Italian restaurants.
La Famiglia 111 Cleveden Road, Kelvinside, Glasgow (0141-334 0111, lafamigliarestaurant.co.uk) Set menu (check for times) £14.95 (two courses), £19.95 (three couses)
Starters £5.95-£9.95; Main courses £13.95-£18.95; Puddings £4.25-£6.95 Cheese £6.95 Rating
He’s certainly right that they have been popping up like mushrooms in the early morning dew, with every new week being greeted by a press release announcing the arrival of a shiny new and achingly authentic trattoria with a central Glasgow postcode.
Yet despite the lure of the new, it’s the auld yins that continue to do best. Because they’ve tended to be relatively cheap places to eat, Italian restaurants are where Glaswegian foodies dine out most regularly, and consequently where they develop their greatest attachment. So old favourites like the incomparable Fratelli Sarti and the venerable La Lanterna continue to thrive despite the second city’s straitened circumstances.
That said, as well as Jamie’s Italian there is another newcomer putting down deep roots. La Famiglia may only be a couple of years old, but Nico Simeone’s impressive little restaurant feels as if it has been with us forever. Indeed, barely a week goes by without someone suggesting that I go and try this outwardly modest little neighbourhood eaterie.
Its success is all the more impressive given its position, off the beaten track in a rather quiet little residential enclave. Tucked away in a suburban Kelvinside street amid neat rows of bungalows, but just five minutes from the attractions of Byres Road and the West End, this is a classic neighbourhood restaurant kept going by local patronage.
It does so because of its food. Chef-patron Simeone has a decent track record, having been a former Young Seafood Chef of the Year while training under Craig Sandle at the Michelin-starred Number One at Edinburgh’s Balmoral Hotel, and in his first restaurant it is apparent that you’re dealing with a man confident in his abilities as soon as you pick up the menu. This is no lazy pizza and pasta emporium – indeed, there are none of the former on either the lunch or dinner options, while the latter features only in passing – but there’s a sense of confidence that oozes from a menu that covers a surprisingly diverse range of culinary bases.
Take the starters. There are some old familiars in there, but they’ve been given a Simeone makeover: the chicken liver parfait, for example, comes rolled in a pistachio crumb and is served with pear and pistachio crumble. There’s also a new-season broccoli velouté served with goats cheese tortellini and shaved walnuts, plus a braised oxtail ravioli. The former echoes the Italian obsession with seasonal produce (it’s still virtually impossible to find ingredients out of season in Italy, which is why their flavours are generally so intense), while the latter gives a nod to the Italian belief that top-notch food isn’t necessarily produced using the most expensive ingredients, but rather the freshest.
As we sat in La Famiglia, gazing through the window at the snow bucketing down outside and giving thanks that we were sitting in this stylish restaurant, in which tasteful photographs of Simeone’s family life adorn the walls, our induction to his food was an interesting one. With its raucously intense flavours and velveteen patina, the starter of white onion velouté was exactly what was needed on this bitterly cold evening. That was our meal off on the right foot.
Next up were our starters, and these were outstanding. There was a time when a starter containing monkfish was obligatory, only for that fad to give way to lashings of black pudding; and now scallops infest every menu in the country, making it a challenge to really impress with such a ubiquitous ingredient. Yet Bea’s pan-fried scallops with steamed clams on spiced fregola with shards of chorizo and seasoned with lemon zest provided one of the very best starters of my year. Simeone’s ability to merge so many diverse tastes into a dish in which each of the constituent ingredients could still be easily picked out was staggering; even the subtle tones of the scallops were still given free rein amid a host of strong flavours.
If that gave us notice that here was a chef of note, my risotto, cooked simply with Primotivo red wine, parmesan and mascarpone, confirmed what the good folk of Kelvinside clearly already know. At first sight it looked like a suspiciously small serving, especially given that the ingredients are relatively inexpensive, but from the first forkful the richness of this simple dish hit my palate like a steam train; any more and I’d never have finished.
By now we were on red alert and had developed high expectations. Bea’s (clearly fresh and homemade) linguine with prawns, served with a hefty dose of chilli, garlic, lemon zest and pesto, was every bit as good as her starter, while my pleasingly succulent pan-fried rump of lamb and crisp belly (which came cooked in croquette fashion) was also superb.
The one area in which the menu at first sight looked mildly dull was the puddings. Still, there was no shortfall in quality, with Bea opting for an affogato that turned out to be a wonderfully silky crème brûlée version of the espresso pudding that more than lived up to the standards of her starter and main course. Much the same was true of my tarte tatin.
Indeed, the whole meal passed in a blur amid endless growls of appreciation. Nor was the food the only star turn: from the gorgeously full-bodied house red Primitivo Salento (£16) to the quietly efficient service and the pleasing surroundings, this was how we would all like our neighbourhood restaurant to be. If I’m looking for a downside, it would be the price – the starters in particular were pushing the limits of acceptability – but generally it was an overwhelmingly positive experience. If all of Glasgow’s Italian restaurants are like this one, no wonder there’s an appetite for more.