On the table: Cafe Murano



Victoria Stewart visits the second branch of Cafe Murano, an excellent Italian spot offering access to Angela Hartnett’s fabled food in Covent Garden.

A year spent studying in Verona 10 years ago taught me that the simple fact of living in Italy does not guarantee you good food. I did eat some truly excellent things out there (after all, it was here that a newfound pasta snobbery unfurled itself) but I also took many wrong turns.

For example, when I was introduced to the regional dish vitello tonnato – a Piedmontese speciality made up of veal and tuna – I thought my friends were playing a joke on me. And ever since trying their seemingly nightmareish combination of lumpy, brown tuna mayonnaise dolloped over slices of limp, cold veal, I’ve never touched the stuff.

Then last week someone suggested we visit Cafe Murano, and I came to face to face with vitello tonnato a second time. Cafe Murano was designed to be the more accessible version of super chef Angela Hartnett’s Murano in Mayfair. Its first offshoot arrived in St James’s in 2014, and the second, which we visit, came to Covent Garden’s theatre land last summer. Murano it is not, but here the service is top notch.

Beckoned in by earthy smells winding up from the kitchen, we find the Tavistock Street branch relatively busy on a Wednesday lunchtime; come six o’clock I suspect the pre-theatre crowd make it even more so.

There are three parts to it: a busy, blue-booth-filled area for people who want to be close to the street buzz of actors-ville, a pretty upstairs bit, and a lovely, quieter portion at the back that has so much red and yellow chequered floor space in the middle that you feel it should be celebrated with dancing waiters of some variety.

Tables are simply set up – no decoration, just sturdy salt and pepper mills, glasses, and crisp white linen napkins – and the table staff have a quiet professionalism about them; somehow knowing when to appear before you realise you want them, disappearing when you don’t, and remembering who ordered what.


The menu is precise, and the food alluring. First there is bread with silky Sicilian olive oil (you can buy this at the deli Pastificio next door). Next four perfect truffle arancini disappear fast, swiftly followed by a preposterously creamy baby burrata (burratina) enlivened with anchovy pieces, basil, baby tomatoes and a lemony olive oil. A fennel and Scamorza dish is earthy and smoky, with baby capers that pop in the mouth, and then there is vitello tonnato, which bears no similarity whatsoever to my first memory of the stuff. Not a lump in sight, instead it has intriguing layers of flavour; veal is rich and delicately sliced while the tuna hides in soft piles underneath a handful of rocket, fat capers and shards of Parmesan. It’s pleasantly fishy and salty.

Finally it is time for the pasta ritual and we wait as waiters serve some directly out of small saucepans onto our plates. Tagliatelle with Tuscan sausage ragu is too soft, but spaghetti with aubergine, chilli, garlic and datterini tomatoes is just as lovely a pasta as you’ll get anywhere in Italy – generous on garlic, homemade pasta with a bite to it, aubergine cooked until it’s basically a sauce. It is so good.

There is no time for dessert but we leave knowing we’d book it again before, say, a show nearby. I should have known that if anything was going to change my mind about vitello tonnato, it might have been something involving Angela Hartnett.

What we drank: 2014 Dolcetta d’Alba, Roagna, Piedmont, Italy

Cafe Murano, 36 Tavistock Street, London WC2E 7PB, as well as its St James’s branch, is now open on Sundays.