Phil Howard has turned his chef skills to pasta with perfectly executed sauces that satisfy both the appetite and the need for affordable luxury at his new venture Notto
"A bowl of tagliatelle with a knob of butter and a bit of chicken stock, when it's done well, is as delicious and as enjoyable to eat as anything," says Phil Howard, who has cooked many bowls of pasta during his career, which first began in 1988 at Roux Restaurants.
Howard is about to take the fine dining skills he has learned over the past 34 years and open a fast-paced pasta restaurant on Piccadilly in London. A pasta bar – as he likes to call it – is new territory for the chef who spent his earlier years working under Marco Pierre White at Harveys and has held a Michelin star at his Elystan Street restaurant since 2017, after sustaining two stars at the Square for 17 years. But it's his time with White all those years ago that sparked his love of pasta.
"I think it's probably the right thing to say that he was the guy who put pasta into fine dining," muses Howard. "There is something about working with flour and water – and an egg in the case of pasta –but anything that has a dough, as a cook, never loses its loveliness."
"There is magic in pasta," he continues. "And since the first time I ever made pasta at Harveys, that's where the seed was sown. And there's not been a day or a service at the Square or Elystan Street when there hasn't been a pasta dish on the menu."
Notto will open in mid-November and span 3,742 sq ft over two floors of the corner site at 199 Piccadilly. It will house a 74-cover restaurant upstairs and a state-of-the-art production kitchen downstairs, which will also serve Howard's pasta delivery business, which he launched with business partner Julian Dyer as ‘Otto' in April 2021.
It was this at-home pasta meal kit business which gave Howard and Dyer the confidence to launch a restaurant dedicated to the much-loved Italian staple. "We came up with a way of doing some pasta dishes that really worked if you break them down into their component parts. That's effectively what the home delivery is – you get a box with some fresh pasta, a great sauce and a bit of Parmesan and it's very simple," says Howard.
"We did lots of pop-ups over the course of the first year, which made it really clear that once you've got the building blocks of a pasta dish, executing it becomes very simple and consistent, and that's what appealed to me – the concept that we'd built as a home delivery business would actually do incredibly well as a restaurant."
The Otto delivery arm will also become Notto after a legal issue arose with an existing business of a similar name, and menu development and pasta production will be in sync with the Piccadilly restaurant, which will be under the watchful eye of executive chef Louis Korovilas. As the former head chef at Bacone in Covent Garden and Noci in Islington, Korovilas certainly knows his way around a pasta machine, and will look after the day-to-day running of the kitchen as well as working closely with Howard on menu development.
While Howard says his spirit remains firmly at Elystan Street, which he opened with business partner Rebecca Mascarenhas in September 2016, he is looking forward to doing something "very different to anything I've ever done before".
"I've traded at a certain level my entire career – I've been fine dining all the way through – so I just liked the idea of doing something that's completely different at a price point which is much more accessible," he says.
This more casual operation will be open seven days a week, with 30 members of staff serving everyone from tourists and theatre-goers to business lunches, dates and family dinners. A leap away from the formal dining rooms Howard is used to cooking for, guests will be sat informally in a space designed to be social, comfortable and inclusive. "We're intending for it to be a fast-moving, bustling place, but somewhere where you do ultimately, stop, sit, relax and enjoy."
To attract this wide-ranging clientele, who have myriad choice of restaurants in London's West End, Howard has had to push himself out of his fine-dining comfort zone and approach Notto very differently.
"If you want to be very accessible and open to everybody on the high street, for want of a better term, you've got to make sure that your offering is exactly that – it is accessible, you haven't got all sorts of quirky ingredients that people either aren't familiar with, or don't want to eat," he says.
Accessible and affordable
A lot of time has been taken to create a menu that's interesting enough to stand out and give Notto an identity and character, but also doesn't intimidate any potential guests looking for an easy dinner after a day's shopping on Regent Street.
"I'm in the business of giving pleasure," adds Howard. "As a chef, I've never been motivated or stimulated by the desire or need to innovate or create new flavour combinations – it's not my thing, it's always been a harmony of flavour and seasonality."
Eight pasta dishes will be available daily, alongside a selection of snacks such as burrata, an octopus salad or a simple focaccia. A classic ragu with pappardelle or a take on a carbonara will be obvious crowd-pleasers, while a ravioli dish with delicate pumpkin, chestnut, brown butter, sage and capers will pique just the right amount of interest from punters.
"I don't want anybody to stand and read the menu outside and think that's ‘too' anything – too boring, too exotic, too quirky, too expensive," he says.
With dishes starting at £8, Howard's menu is definitely ticking the accessible box, especially helpful when he is launching amid a cost of living crisis. "As luck would have it, I'm glad I'm not opening an expensive operation, but the thing that is different with pasta and Italian cooking is that Italy excels at identifying magnificent ingredients, which are normally local, humble and utterly delicious, and incorporating them into their cooking with great effect. They produce things that are spectacular to eat, but are actually very simple."
He points to a piece of sea bass that he might serve for dinner at Elystan Street: "It will come at a price point that I can't change because it costs a certain amount of money, but what's great about pasta is that you can throw truffles at it, which are particularly delicious, but on the whole it doesn't ask for expensive ingredients. It's actually more about taking something humble and just cooking it correctly."
And cooking ingredients correctly is something Howard can most certainly do. "I like to think that if you were to give me a rabbit and some vegetables, and to give somebody who doesn't know how to cook the same rabbit and vegetables, my ragu would be more delicious, but the cost is exactly the same," he says. "Given where the world is at right now, I'm certainly looking forward to having something that is really accessible.
"I've been rattling around long enough now and I've had the joy of the Square and now Elystan Street to know where my creative ambitions have been – I've ticked all the boxes I wanted to tick – so now I can just cook, and I don't care about what other people think anymore. I just want to cook the things I want to cook." And if that's a bowl of tagliatelle and chicken stock, all the better.
On the menu at Notto
- Mixed Italian olives £3
- Otto rosemary, garlic and chilli roasted nuts £3
- Crostini (three), olive tapenade, truffled artichoke, slow-roasted pepper £4.50
- Crostini (three) with chicken, liver and bacon, sweet roasted garlic, mushroom and tarragon £5.50
- Mortadella with pickled vegetables £7
- Grissini with lardo di colonnata £5.50
- Parmesan biscuits £4
- Chestnut soup with ricotta, chilli and extra virgin olive oil £7
- Roasted delica pumpkin with truffled almond pesto £8
- Vitello tonnato £10
- Salad of octopus, white beans, red onion, garlic, olive oil and herbs £12
- Rigatoni cacio e pepe £8
- Gnocchetti with smashed sausage, white wine, fennel and chilli £10
- Pappardelle with slow-cooked oxtail and shin of beef, field mushrooms and red wine £13
- Ravioli of pumpkin and chestnuts with pine nuts, brown butter, sage and Parmesan £11
- Strozzapreti with black truffles, mushroom stock, Parmesan and butter £18
- Squid-ink spaghetti with a sauce of sardines, garlic, sweet peppers and tomato £12
- Bucatini with a bolognese of autumn vegetables, mushrooms and chestnuts £8
- Tagliatelle with chicken stock, tarragon, butter and Parmesan £8
- Milk chocolate and hazelnut cream £5
- Vanilla ice cream £4.50
- Hazelnut ice cream £5
- Affogato ice cream £7
- Gorgonzola dolce with grapes and seeded cracker £7
Gnocchetti with smashed sausage, white wine, chilli, fennel and garlic
Serves 4 large or 6 medium
- 500g sausage meat
- 100g shallots, chopped
- 1 clove garlic, smashed and chopped
- ½ tsp fennel seeds, pestle and mortared
- 100ml dry white wine
- 100g celeriac, course grated
- ¼tsp chilli flakes
- 250ml chicken stock
- 30g unsalted butter
- 1tbs olive oil
- 700g fresh gnocchetti pasta or other small shaped fresh pasta, such as orecchiette or conchiglie 300g good quality dried pasta would also be fine
- Parmesan to finish
Let the sausage meat come up to room temperature.
Place the olive oil into a large, shallow, heavy-based pan. Add the butter, followed by the sausage meat. Continuously stir the sausage meat, smashing it and breaking it up as much as possible.
Once it has all broken down into a mincemeat-like consistency add the chopped shallots, garlic, salt, pepper, chilli flakes and fennel seeds and continue to cook carefully, covered if necessary, stirring frequently until the shallots have sweated and become translucent. A little bit of colour is fine but keep the heat gentle to avoid scorching.
Add the white wine and reduce by 50%. Add the celeriac, stir thoroughly and allow to soften. Add the chicken stock, bring to the boil, cover and cook at a bare simmer for 1 hour.
Check seasoning. Set aside to cool – and check seasoning. The sauce should taste of all the key ingredients – sausage, white wine, fennel and chilli.
Heat up the sausage sauce in a large pan. Reserve warm. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water as per instructions. Drain, reserving 150ml of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the sauce along with the pasta water. Cook for a further minute or two until the pasta and sauce have become one, with the sauce coating the pasta in a rich and glossy way.
Add a knob of butter if desired. Carefully transfer to warm pasta bowls and finish with Parmesan.
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