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Zuccato at the O2 Centre, London NW3

Clifford Mould discovered excellent value at this very urbane Italian café-diner

The O2 Centre in the Finchley Road is a somewhat futuristic shopping centre - I'd hesitate to call it a mall exactly - but it's got a Sainsbury's and some other stores including a very good bookshop where I was able to buy a copy of the Larousse Gastronomique, full text edition minus the pictures for only £10.

Upstairs, or rather up the escalator on the gallery floor, there are a number of eating places, mainly American in inspiration, such as Babe Ruth's, so Zuccato which is very Italian, stands out a mile. What's so very Italian about Zuccato? Does it have rustic arches with dangling raffia covered Chianti bottles? A groaning sweet trolley? Of course not! There's a welcoming bar that spills out onto the gallery concourse, with comfortable leather covered sofas and chairs. Inside, the space is larger than I expected, with a high ceiling and one wall filled with huge sepia enlargements of sophisticated Italians of a couple of generations ago enjoying themselves in an urban setting when we in Britain were still revelling in austerity.

Our group sat in one of the alcoves around a large round black marble topped table. We drank very pleasant Verdicchio for just under £10 a bottle. The Menu offers Antipasti and Pasta in either starter (£4.00 - £5.50) or main course (£6.50 - £8.00) portions. Pizzas, which looked generous though we didn't try one, come out in the very reasonable price range of £5.50 to £7.50 for a Frutti di Mare or a Bresaola topping.

My guest's Caponata, a traditional Sicilian hors d'oeuvre with nicely grilled aubergines as its base, seemed to have migrated Northwards, substituting Mozzarella for its more piquant Mediterranean ingredient of anchovies. The other salads were crisp and fresh, and together with the very large and super garlic bread made from a delicious, crisp pizza base you have an excellent and very cheap starter. I had linguine with very nice mussels which could have done with some sauce, but a good plateful for a fiver nevertheless.

I followed that with a lightly grilled bistecca which was very juicy and pale pink, more like veal than beefsteak perhaps, but with a nice creamy green pepper sauce. I'd particularly recommend the calves' liver (£9.50), which came piled high on a finely tuned mash with spinach and lots of crisp pancetta bacon. One of my guests was very enthusiastic about her Valdestano di Pollo - the chicken was tender and flavourful and the Parma Ham in which it was wrapped infused the dish with subtle smoky highlights.

For pud there is a selection of old Italian favourites (all at £3.75 but we didn't try the Tiramisu). The Torta di Cioccolato is must for chocaholics: the sponge was light and the chocolate was dark and sumptuous. Uova al Tegame is another dessert I'd recommend trying. It's basically pannacotta, which is a sort of Italian version of the creamy part of crème brulée - with apricots and some strawberry coulis - a bit like Nellie Melba meets Gina Lollabrigida.

As you might expect from such a contemporary Italian metro-diner, the coffee puts lead in your pencil! The service was sweet, very charming, very Italian and just a little chaotic at times! But who cares, that was all part of the fun! Clifford Mould, January 2000

Zuccato, O2 Centre, 255 Finchley Road, London NW3
Tel: 020 7431 1799

UK Restaurant Reviews – The Best Of The Dine Online Restaurant Reviews 2001 - 2010

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