Words and photos by Bruce Mc Michael
The curtain has risen for the newest incarnation of a concept restaurant that brings Italian flair to London’s most exciting district, Soho. Dressed in red and with pavement frontage of huge slabs of dry ageing beef offer something new, a new destination promises raw passion, a gastronomic concept that greets guests and promises a flux of life, theatre and visceral drama. Life is frantic and food options are everywhere. Theatres, nightclubs, hidden bars and the fabulously dressed all demand your attention.
Enter stage left Ligurian-expatriate and restaurateur Roberto Costa, whose culinary viewpoint is powered by a borderless intuition. Roberto’s Macellaio RC group has launched its newest dining concept, Il Teatro della Carne, in London’s West End, a gastronomic destination that pays homage to the building’s and area’s theatrical history.
Soho has enjoyed a long relationship with Italy through waves of migration and a centre of fashion and late night coffee shops. The very name London is derived from Londinium, the Latin name for the settlement founded by Roman invaders 2000 years ago.
London’s appetite for the new, for innovation and creativity is insatiable. Its people hunt in packs for fresh, exciting directions that refresh and oxygenate and where Italian heritage and tradition cloaks itself in contemporary edge as cuisine, fashion, music and design evolve for an experienced hungry crowd.
Costa is a native of Genoa, Liguria – just south of Piemonte – and an area better known for dispatching explorers and traders out into the world. Liguria is fish, olives and farinata whereas Piemonte is wine, beef and truffles, a place of deep, rich, dark flavours.
His work behind the flaming grills has created heat from Italy and across land and water to London and Miami – sweeping up collaborative friendships with small-scale, artisanal producers in Italy from Piemonte to Puglia, and carving out a hard working, focused approach to his role as an international restaurateur as an art form, a craft.
While living with his family in the UK, Roberto gives time and space to nurturing relationships, interacting through regular food safaris to Italy and ensuring he can smell the farm, touch the cows, feel the vineyard atmosphere and see the passion burn in the eyes of the cheese maker.
Opening a concept restaurant in the height of a global health pandemic in the centre of London in an area of flamboyant nightlife takes nerves and a steady hand. But despite clocking up over 30 years experience in food and cuisine, Costa’s ambition remains undimmed. He works closely with group executive chef Luciano Nastasi who trained with Antonio Carluccio, the Italian chef and restaurateur beloved by British diners and early mentor of Jamie Oliver.
Inspired by his butcher Grandfather, he credits his mentor for showing him the value of retail theatre to entertain, inform and inspire his customers to buy and create food that calls and connects people to the table and each other. While some people travel to taste wine, chocolate or cheese varieties, Roberto packed his bags and headed to find farm tracks less travelled to find cattle breeds overlooked by modern, intensive farming methods to feed his customers. Breeds, body shapes, muscle to fat content in Limousin, Aubrac, and Charolais cattle were inspected, prodded, poked, assessed and tasted before the team settled for the Fassona from central Piemonte. The breed is easily recognisable by their muscular build, particularly across the thighs, tenderness, juiciness, and a rich, sweet flavour and the amount of meat offered from each beast is generous.
Fassona meat is sourced from Piemonte-based butchery Oberto. It is slaughtered after 36 months when the cattle has reached its natural growth process and is then slowly air-dried over a couple of months in special glass cases sat in Costa’s restaurant windows. Roberto buys his Fassano from a group of 170 farmers where the cattle are slaughtered after at least 36 months of life, building muscle structure and deep, refined flavours – redder and with more intense flavours than younger beasts.
Having personally sourced meat from the region for years, Roberto is seeing a new generation of farmers coming through, bringing with them renewed passion and energy and a feel for what the modern chef and diner is seeking from such cuts of meat. “It’s a fine balance between choosing the right breed and managing the dry-ageing process,” says Roberto. “Fassano is great on the grill, but also as a steak tartare. It’s a little buttery, elegant in your mouth.” In the restaurant, crackling flames firing up from the grill flicker towards the meat, seeking to sear and cook and to create an unbreakable caramelising bond through intense, fast cooking.
Mozzarella is sourced from Agerola, a commune in the agricultural orbit of Naples, and is frequently paired with salad tomatoes, particularly the variety Pomodoro Vesuviano, also known as Piennolo, which are grown in the fertile fields around the brooding, volcanic presence of Mount Vesuvius. Piennolos have PDO status; tasty little treats which are the perfect ingredient for pasta or tomato sauce. This tomato variety is grown in the southern region of Campania, around Mount Vesuvius.
Roberto along with his passion for Fassano and gastronomic theatre arrived in London in 2012, magnetically attracted by the Olympic Games and the opportunities that huge sporting events brings with it. Landing in a smart part of town, Old Brompton Road, the first restaurant outlet shocked locals and diners by displaying the meat onto the refined pavements of South Kensington. “But London eaters are curious, and our concept quickly attracted full bookings,” he says. Well trained, engaged staff, front of house and the chefs working in sight of the diners, are integral to Roberto’s design concept and vision to bring national Italian cuisine to London’s well trodden streets and its experience hungry people seeking a filet of Italian style and flavour.
London offers vertical dining, he muses. You can eat Indian, Chinese or Turkish street food in backstreet diners, through middle of road dinners, uninspired restaurant chain outlets to one-off Michelin starred places offering similar dishes but with very different ingredients and approach in the kitchen. In other La Macellaio outlets tuna is a major catch on the menu, but here in Soho it’s air-dried hake, seven day-aged Alaskan salmon, and four-day aged octopus. Tuna will be added to the menu in due course, sourced from a Sardinian fishing family who have been putting out to sea for hundreds of years. “Combining all my experience sourcing the best ingredients for my kitchens, I feel this is Macellaio 4.0, offering a more sophisticated and tightly curated cooking and dining experience,” he says.
It’s not simply putting the most expensive fillet on a plate with lobster flown in from thousands of kilometres away. No, this surf & turf relationship is a subtle combination, delicate and tied together with gastronomic meaning and symbolism flowing from the legendary waters of the Mediterranean, over the Ligurian hills and into the agriculturally rich plains of Piemonte. Diners need to be prepared for a lively dinner, theatre and a well formed gastronomic sensory adventure that travels up and down the Italian peninsula.