Past the maelstrom at Clapham Junction, past the mob at the crossroads of Lavender Hill, past the busy bars that give way to chi-chi boutiques on the Northcote Road, you enter a patch of calm lapsing into the ‘des res’ that has made this one of South London’s priciest neighbourhoods. And here, in this rather more esoteric part of town, sits Macellaio, the latest outpost of a clutch of Italian steakhouses brought to London by its founder, restaurateur Roberto Costa, in recent years.
It’s a good ten minute walk from the station which, in London terms, is practically in the suburbs, but it’s just that that makes it the ‘I know a little place’ sort of restaurant everybody wishes they had. Go that little further and you won’t be disappointed.
And so, one withering autumn evening, as the bite of a November chill was beginning to cut through the coat as we made our way there, Larman and I met for our latest ‘steak night’.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this might not be your ticket to fine dining; butchers blocks make for outdoor tables and, once inside, you’re met not with an inviting immaculately-presented interior, but a butcher’s counter and a clutch of small unadorned wooden tables. But then this should be a good sign. The effort here is on the quality of the meat and the meal; it’s substance over style.
We’re given a ‘buona sera’ on arrival and presented with a daily newspaper to ponder. It’s the Macellaio Post, providing an introduction to the provenance of their meat and a few other nuggets from their other venues. Those are the headlines and, inside, the menu.
It’s a delicious array of Italian fare, but delightfully different. Pasta is given a footnote. Here, it’s all about the animal, and that is Fassona beef from Piedmont, a prized breed noted for its lower fat content. And providing not just its meat either, the menu indicated all but the hoofs were being deployed, though I wouldn’t have been surprised if they made an appearance. I checked the table legs.
Ever drawn to the unusual, I considered the section marked ‘offals’. I’ve had tripe in tomato and pecorino before in Tuscany, so I passed on that. Liver and heart didn’t seem different enough. Tongue seemed de rigeur. One thing leapt out at me. Well, two, really. Testicles.
“Ah, the ‘ox courage’?” our waitress offered. “Is such fortitude required?” I asked. Larman gave me a look I’ve not seen before; a sort of cross between alarm and mirth. “I’ll have the battuta, please” he added. Steak tartare, eh? Arguably that’s equally daring, old boy.
It arrived first, served three ways. Delicious on its own with olive oil and salt, but elevated with gorgonzola and balsamic on the second, and the third with the kitchen cupboard thrown at it; capers, anchovies, gherkins, Tabasco, mustard and brandy among much else. All were divine, and didn’t last long enough to delay the inevitable.
As the testicles arrived, they landed punctuated by an almighty thwack from the butcher’s cleaver behind me. He was carving off our main course from the side of a cow. I looked down at the sorry morsels of emasculated manhood. They resembled kidneys, half sunk in a silty gravy. What a way to go, I pondered.
“Come on, then.” Larman urged, and reached for one with his knife and fork, stabbing the wretched thing; I winced I saw his knife take it in two. “Hmm, they taste like kidneys, too” he suggested. My imagination dissipated and I dived in. They did, indeed. Courage was not required, though, admittedly, they’re perhaps not something I might order again.
Macellaio is the sort of place where steak knives are stabbed into the table before you, where your cut is presented before its cooked, where the butcher marvels at the meat as he prepares it, inspecting it as a craftsman might check their work for imperfections. It’s the sort of place where the meat is given more ceremony than the guest, presented with a ‘bellissima’ as a cloche is lifted.
And it’s all delivered with a wonderful Italian verve. We considered our wine, consulting the waitress for her opinion, taking her suggestion of a Sabazio Montepulciano, “and if you don’t like it, I’ll drink it.” Well, with assurances like that…
And she wasn’t wrong. It was the perfect accompaniment to the main event. Our beef shoulder arrived, cut and reassembled to the bone, looking like it had only glanced at the grill; a smattering of salt flakes, a drizzle of olive oil, this was all that was required. It was a stunning piece of work. To have adulterated it with sauces would have been diminishment, and an insult to the man behind us presently sizing up a cut for another discerning diner.
The restaurant began to fill, circa 8.30pm, as we were concluding; it was as if Clapham was adapting to continental dining. This was a Tuesday evening and every table was taken.
We entertained the desserts, which didn’t even appear on the menu; tiramisu, of course, served in an individual Kilner jar with an abundance of cream, and what were, essentially, miniature custard-filled fried donuts. And in true Italian style, while we considered a digestif, again our host settled for us; Montenegro. A herby amaro rarely drunk outside Bologna evidently, with little surprise as it was akin to a medicinal linctus, edifying us for departure back into the clutches of the night’s chill.
If you didn’t know Italians did steak houses, you’re in for a treat. There’s a dedication to the source ingredients and a passion for the beef I’ve rarely seen in more well-known offerings.
Hardly surprising, really, when you consider that macellaio is Italian for butcher.
For more information about Macellaio Northcote Road, as well as destinations in South Kensington, Exmouth Market and Bankside, and for details of their butchery classes, visit www.macellaiorc.com.