Establishing shot at Casa di Stefano, panning around the restaurant: an Italian coastal town somewhere bright and sun-bleached. The chairs are upholstered in blue-and-white chequered linen, tall jars of lemons or pots of rosemary stand in nooks in the walls, the smell of sea bass, tomato and pancetta are trailing the big plates being dished out across the restaurant.
Zoom out, though, and you’re on Dover Street: Victoria Beckham boutique opposite, Hix Mayfair, shiny and dull next door. But inside Casa di Stefano manages to pull off the Italian combination of something that feels high-end – the sharpness of the waiters’ suits, formality of the service, a liberal hand with truffle shavings – with a fair amount of raucousness. The restaurant is full, and cheerfully loud with couples laughing, families proposing toasts, and one long birthday dinner on a table that keep standing up to hug each other.
Maybe under the influence of all that expansiveness we kick off with three starters between two of us: a tuna tartare with orange, a beef carpaccio with Parmesan and truffle slices, and – crescendo drum roll – a puntarelle salad.
Puntarelle: so lovely, and so effortful. The Guardian ran a divisive article last year on what the touchstones are for telling a good restaurant from its menu, and serving puntarelle was one of them. Presumably because it’s reasonably hard to source outside of Italy and very time-consuming to prepare. (It’s a chicory-ish, Medusa’s head of a plant that I once tracked down across London with an Indiana Jones degree of difficulty, spent hours stripping down to its shoots and soaking to impress my boyfriend, to come up with a handful each of small green slivers. As an expression of love it had all the tiny, quiet impact of a blown kiss.) They’re also and more crucially delicious, and taste of Rome and nostalgia.
At Casa di Stefano they serve their puntarelle with artichokes, Parmesan shavings and the traditional anchovy dressing. This totally overshadows the tartare and carpaccio – both great: substantial and tender – which is an impressive feat for a salad. As puntarelle only appears once on the menu we manage to limit ourselves to just one main course each, both described with a simplicity – sea bass with tomato sauce, veal escalope with lemon sauce – that doesn’t hint at the care and pared-back summeriness of the dishes that arrive, the richness of the veal, especially, perfectly balanced with the brightness of the lemon.
My date’s often claimed to find it exuberant and lavish when I cover myself with food, and the profiteroles are going to give him the chance to regret ever saying that. Casa di Stefano have taken an already-decadent dessert and added chocolate mousse inside the balls, thick, sticky fondant on top – not the hard, straight from the fridge chocolate cap you get on lesser profiteroles – and then to really maximise the danger to my clothes, a shallow bowl of dark chocolate dipping sauce. The profiteroles arrive, like everything else at Casa di Stefano, in a neat, pretty arrangement on blue and white china. Within seconds my plate looks like the Worthy Farm the day after Glastonbury.
Although they have an intriguing aperitivo menu – featuring a few Barolo Chinato and Strega cameos from things found less often outside your Italian grandmother’s liqueur cabinet – wine is king at Casa di Stefano. The sommelier’s pairings throughout have been great – the hi-tech, glass-fronted wine cellar downstairs, double the size of my bedroom, gives you some clue how seriously they take the wine list here – but the genius gets ratcheted up a notch with the dessert menu.
The profiteroles are paired with a Recioto della Valpolicella Brigaldara from the Veneto, which ‘goes so perfectly with the dark chocolate’, says the sommelier, and is the only thing you could add to this dessert that would raise its average decadence per cubic millimetre. My date’s tiramisu, a martini glass of fluffy, bittersweet clouds, comes with an Etna Rosso Masseria Sette Porte from Sicily, which is probably fantastic on its own. Combined with the hint of coffee in the dessert it makes my date stop talking in whole sentences and reduces him to adjectives only for the time it takes us to clear the last trace of chocolate from our plates and my face.
It’s late when we wrap up to leave but the long group table is still going strong. Can’t blame them. Arrivaderci, Casa di Stefano. Next time we need a hit of Amalfi coast holiday without leaving zone 1, we know where to find you.
Casa di Stefano, 20 Dover Street, London W1S 4LU. Tel: 0207 3247724. Website.