29 March 2005

Wandsworth is a far cry from Pomino head chef Franco Soldini's last job at the Ristorante Igelsi in Macareta, in Italy's Marche region. Indeed, Pomino - from Christopher Gilmour and the team behind Christopher's in Covent Garden and the Enterprise in Knightsbridge - is Tuscan-born Soldini's first stint in London, as it is for most of his eight-man brigade.

They are noticing the differences. "London is much more fast-paced than Tuscany, where everything happens very slowly," says Soldini. "The customers in London want their food quickly. In Italy people take their time and really relax over their meal. I'm enjoying the change, though."

Obviously no one told Soldini that in London neighbourhood diners can be just as demanding as the most savvy city-centre gastronaut. But Soldini has come prepared with some serious cooking and a menu that seizes the hearty and rustic essence of central Italian cuisine. "It is very important for me to cook these dishes, because it is the food that I know and believe in," he says.

Favourites include venison bresaola with baby fennel salad (£6.75), pappardelle with wild hare, rigatino Toscana and aged pecorino (£7.50) and roast stuffed quail with Italian sausage, porcini risotto and game reduction (£11.50). The evening menu changes weekly, and the lunch selection changes daily. There is also a lunch special for £7.50, including a glass of wine or dessert.

Both menus have many of Soldini's regional specialities such as ribollita, a Tuscan vegetable and bean soup (£4.25). For this, onions, carrots, celery and leeks are sweated in olive oil with marjoram, sage and rosemary. Leaves of cavolo nero, Savoy cabbage and spinach are added with potatoes, chopped tomatoes and cannellini beans. When the soup is ready, thinly sliced red onions are added.

Starters include stewed octopus with Tuscan rigatino and peas (£6.75) and risotto of porcini mushrooms and slow-roasted pigeon (£8.50). Mains include a selection of meats, pastas and fish, some of which Soldini admits have been tailored to English taste. "The English demand lighter touches and more refined cuisine," he says. "In Italy the cooking is much heavier and more robust."

Puddings include ricotta cheesecake (£4.75), tiramis- Pomino (£4.75) and a pecorino selection with pears, fig conserve and chestnut honey (£5.95).

But it's Soldini's regional favourites that are most in demand: a torta di noci with zabaglione (£5) and his zuccotto with chestnut honey sauce (£5). Zuccotto (a Tuscan dessert) is a dome lined with sponge and filled with layers of vanilla and chocolate semifreddo. It is pressed and served in wedges.

Just as the food brings authentic central Italian cooking to south London, the wine list also beats the usual local trattoria: there are about 150 bins (with five whites and five reds available by the glass), and a library list starting at £40. Pomino also supports newer Italian producers. "I love the modern, fruit-driven red wines to go with the tagliata or the porchetta," says Soldini. "Modern producers like Falesco, Felsina and Altesino are particularly good."

So far the clientele has comprised locals, with many families at weekends. The brigade puts out 950 covers a week, and about 85 most weekend nights. There is a small bar area, seating 20. Tuscan granite, veined marble terracotta and hand-decorated glazed tiles along two walls add to the Italian feel. The other two walls are floor-to-ceiling windows, and there is an open kitchen. "It brings the kitchen to life and allows us to feel a close relationship with customers," says Soldini. n

Pomino, 35 Bellevue Road, Wandsworth Common, London SW17 7EF. Tel: 020 8672 5888. Website: www.pomino.co.uk

What's on the menu

  • Crostini of wood pigeon, Sangiovese reduction, £6.75
  • Baked egg, spinach with pecorino and rigatino, £5.50
  • Ravioli of shrimps and lobster with a truffle reduction, £8.75/£12.75
  • Slow braised marinated wild boar with nuts, raisins, candied fruit, soft polenta and bitter chocolate sauce, £14.75
  • Grilled figs, vanilla panna cotta, £5
  • Ricotta cheesecake, £4.75

Chef's cheat When cooking pasta with a shellfish or wild mushroom sauce, boil the pasta until nearly cooked and then finish off cooking the pasta with the sauce in the pan. This will impart the flavours of the sauce into the pasta dish.

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