A Little Bit of Italy in the U.K. + Learning the Language

I’m back! Well, we’ve been back for almost a month. Time is flying! Our 10-day trip to the United Kingdom feels like months ago. I guess that’s what happens when you take an amazing vacation and then jump back into work and life full-throttle. Sigh.

We went to England and Scotland to visit Nick’s mum and to attend our friends’ wedding. We hadn’t been to England in almost three years so we were really looking forward to it. The trip was a whirlwind (Heathrow –> Cotswolds –> London –> Edinburgh –> North Berwick –> Edinburgh) but absolutely fantastic. I didn’t want to come home! We were able to spend lots of quality time with family, fit in a visit to the Tower of London, a stop at Nick’s boarding school, a show on West End, antiquing, a beer festival, a tour of Blenheim Palace and more. But enough about that, you want to hear about the food.

I know England gets a bad rap for its cuisine, but quite honestly, that’s just not fair. Not only is traditional English cooking interesting in and of itself, but as London is a major global city, it has a wide variety of offerings when it comes to food. Here’s a rundown of what we ate on our trip:

  • cassoulet over rice with a dessert of chocolate mousse and ginger cake (cooked by Nick’s aunt and her partner)
  • scrambled eggs & smoked salmon (again, cooked by Nick’s aunt and co.)
  • local lamb with mint sauce and mashed potatoes at a pub in the Cotswolds
  • a wonderful picnic of cheese and charcuterie with champagne and lavender cookies
  • classic fish & chips
  • duck in plum sauce with veg and two kinds of cous cous (cooked by Nick’s mum)
  • Indian food at The Punjab in London
  • Italian food at Valentina in London
  • Italian food at Bella Italia in North Berwick, Scotland
  • haggis at the wedding in North Berwick + lots of other delicious food at the wedding
  • & wine, champagne, and lots of great English beer & perry

But as this is a blog about Italian food and cooking, I’ll stick with that. 🙂

Nick’s mum, Rosie, kindly did some research to determine a good spot for Italian food in London. On our last evening there, we went to Valentina Fine Foods in Putney Bridge, not far from Fulham, where Rosie lives. Valentina is owned by the Zoccola and Arcari families, who operate a handful of Italian delicatessens/restaurants throughout London. At the Putney Bridge location, the bottom floor is the Italian deli and the second floor is the restaurant. The deli had a great selection of Italian staples. In addition to selling imported Italian pantry items, Valentina produces their own olive oil and other items at their family farm outside of Rome.

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We started our meal with a rosé suggested by our waitress, which we all loved so much we got two bottles. For appetizers, Rosie ordered the capesante — pan seared scallops served on creamed leeks and topped with crispy pancetta. It was good, but a bit small. I had my favorite, caprese, which was a generous portion, and Nick ordered the antipasto della casa which came with a variety of meats, cheeses, and bread. Everything was great.

For entrees, Nick ordered a pizza, I got capella romana, and if memory serves, Rosie had saltimbocca. Now, let me start by saying that Nick and I are accustomed to quality pizza. Not only do we frequently make our own (which is pretty good if I say so myself), but we happen to live in the northern end of the “Pizza Belt” and we both used to live in Brooklyn, so needless to say, we know good pizza. Sadly, Valentina did not make a good pizza. Nick’s arrived barely cooked in the middle, a bit of a floppy mess. Our Italian waitress politely insisted that that was the way it was supposed to be and that Nick must have a preference for crisper pizza, so she kindly had the kitchen make him another one. The second one was thankfully more firm, but not ideal. As for my meal, it was good. It was made with tagliatelle, homemade meatballs, and mozzarella wrapped in Speck ham, baked and served with a tomato and basil sauce. The small meatballs were flavorful and moist and the mozzarella was deliciously melty and evenly distributed throughout the tagliatelle. It was all baked into a little nest which was kind of fun to cut into and eat. However, the sauce wasn’t great. I think it was a bit too sweet for my taste, and unfortunately, for me the sauce always makes or breaks the meal. So, while it wasn’t the best Italian meal I’ve had in my life (stiff competition here in the States!), it was very enjoyable and most importantly, we got to spend time together before departing for Scotland.

capella romana at Valetina Fine Foods, Putney Bridge, London

capella romana at Valetina Fine Foods, Putney Bridge, London

Last night in London with Nicks mum, Rosie.

Last night in London with Nicks mum, Rosie.

The next night we were in North Berwick which is on the coast of southeastern Scotland near the English border. We arrived in Edinburgh that afternoon, checked into our AirBnB apartment, quickly got ready, and hopped on the train to go have drinks with the bride and groom and their friends. Unfortunately, the pub we were drinking at closed their kitchen within minutes of Nick going up to place an order, so as we left around 9:30 we were scrambling to find a place for a late meal before catching the train back to Edinburgh. We walked the main street through town, in the direction of the station, and found Bella Italia, a small Italian place. We went in and wolfed down a meal in about 30 minutes; our waiter was catching the same train as us so he made sure our service was fast. I had cheese tortellini with a tomato-based sauce and it was very, very yummy. But I was also very, very hungry and my palate is a little less discerning when my tummy’s grumbling. I think Nick had an alfredo dish and he was pleased with it.

I hope to check out some other Italian places next time we’re in the U.K.  I can’t wait until we go back!

Now, for some news: I’ve started taking Italian language classes for beginners at the Italian Cultural Center in Springfield. It’ll only be my third class on Monday but I love it already! It’s such a good way to start the work week and finish a Monday.  The teacher is great, all of the students are friendly, the language is beautiful, and my knowledge of Spanish is a huge help. Right now, I’m still practicing the alphabet, pronunciation, basic verb conjugations, and common phrases so my ability to converse is pretty minimal but I’m looking forward to being able to have a conversation in the near future. And learning culinary vocabulary!

Stay tuned for pasta con le sarde and oranges with balsamic-and-anise caramel coming soon!

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