Bancone is the sort of new opening that critics face with a heavy heart. It is a long, pale room, with a counter and some booths, serving mainly pasta. Some antipasti, yes, but mainly ravioli and tagliolini. That’s the concept – as in, there isn’t one.
It is so much easier to splash words on restaurant-land’s gimmicks and frippery; on robot waiters or in-restaurant car lifts. Or on menus strewn with cool, puzzling things like sandos, bottarga, furikake fries or shrimp ranhofer.
Bancone, however, like most good Italian restaurants, fails on all these charges. It is majestically straightforward. In fact, one of my favourite dishes was a simply hewn plate of fresh fazzoletti, or “silk handkerchiefs”, lying in heavenly walnut butter. Imagine paper-thin, sublimely al dente sheets draped prettily in a sticky, nutty, gritty mess of butter. This casually orgasmic type of dish does not need a 40-storey panoramic view or a champagne butler to help sell it.
Besides, many high-concept, experimental ventures fail within 12 months, whereas Trullo, Padella, Bocca Di Lupo and Murano – which the deeply affordable Bancone sits alongside in my mind – have true longevity.
Bancone is what happens when chef Louis Korovilas, formerly of Pied à Terre and Locanda Locatelli, quietly sets up shop in a decidedly unhip touristy nook near Trafalgar Square, selling plates of datterini tomato focaccia, oxtail ragu pappardelle and gressingham duck ravioli at Pizza Express prices.
That bowl of walnutty handkerchiefs, for example, was £8. The most punchily priced of the pasta, a cuttlefish tagliatelle, was £12.50. Meanwhile, at Michelin-starred, absurdly chic Locanda Locatelli, one will find a small, albeit delightful plate of tagliatelle with spring vegetables (as a palate livener before the carne or pesce course) at around £18. I love Locanda Locatelli, but it’s wise to keep a heart defibrillator on standby for when the bill lands. It costs a lot to keep smouldering saucepot Giorgio Locatelli’s hair looking so fantastic.
At Bancone, you can eat like a Russian art dealer or a Knightsbridge lunching mummy for a fraction of the price. Its charred pile of hispi cabbage in Planeta olive oil with a vampire-obliterating dose of garlic and a vibrant thwack of chilli is truly great, and costs £4.50. The slivers of duck breast on sweet pickled artichokes were perhaps less exciting. On another occasion – and I am going back – I’m going for the mini jersey royals with peas, baby onions and parmesan snow.
Truth be told, I’m frustrated to have to tell people about Bancone. I snapped up a walk-in dinner spot last week and stayed at least two hours dining with my long-suffering bloke, Charles, demolishing fried polenta balls perched on pureed portobello, pondering that Bancone solves so many West End dining problems. It’s large, non-chainy-special enough to do a birthday in, and has a small upstairs private dining room if your colleagues are too horrendous to inflict on the public. It takes reservations and is in precisely the right spot for pre-show dinners, or to meet an out-of-town auntie who doesn’t want to stray east. She’ll adore the chef who stands in the window chopping and forming pasta. Bancone has an oddly neighbourhood feel, despite its neighbours being Nelson’s column and several thousand streetwise pigeons.
The menu is likely to alter, but to my mind, the braised lamb tagliatelle, rich with garlic and rosemary, is certainly worth seeking out. The tomato fondue ravioli with goat’s curd is frankly peculiar to look at – it’s a plate of “wrapped sweets” of ravioli sitting among puddles of curd. The whole thing is saved by the rich remarkableness of the parcel’s tomato innards. Still, I was left wishing we’d gone for the gnocchi with sage butter.
Puddings were a simple three-choice affair: a lemon syllabub, some fresh strawberries with ricotta or – our choice – a burnt apricot with fresh honeycomb and yoghurt. “Burnt” was an overstatement – it was inoffensively singed, but you can’t have everything. You don’t go to Bancone for the pudding. You go for a bottle of Biferno Riserva 2012 and two or three bowls of spaghetti alla chittara or tagliolini with seaweed butter.
It’s just a long pale room that serves pasta. Bancone’s gimmick is that you get a really lovely dinner and you don’t weep when the bill appears. It’s a trend that I hope will run and run.
Bancone, 39 William IV Street, London, WC2N 4DD, 020-7240 8786, bancone.co.uk.
Open Monday-Saturday, noon-2.45pm, 5.30-11.00pm. About £25 a head plus drinks and service.