Sunday, 25 October 2009
It was a cool, overcast day in March 2008 when The Peanut Gallery and I, feet aching from endless hours spent trodding the well worn, cobblestoned streets of Milano's shopping district, stumbled upon a breathtaking bakery. In a trancelike state, we were forcibly drawn, mouths agape, into its bounty of loaves, cakes and delights both savoury and sweet. Like greedy piglets at the trough, we ate everything - pizza, bread, sausage rolls, pastry, cake. All at once and in no particular order, we devoured, pillaged, ransacked and consumed, leaving in our wake nothing but a scattering of crumbs at our feet and a trail of grease around our lips. This is my lasting and most pleasant memory of Milan.
So it was a certain amount of gluttonous anticipation that we watched the familiar Princi layout spring up in Soho last year. Could it be the same one? If it was, would we ever be able to look down and see our feet again?
And so it was that Rocco Princi, famed as the "Armani of bread", teamed up with Alan Yau, the man behind Wagamama, Busaba Eathai, Hakkasan, Yautcha and Cha Cha Moon, to bring the Milanese baker's delights to London last year.
Helen and Suzi joined me there late on Friday night, after our invigorating Italian feast at a nearby eatery. We simply followed the drool up Wardour Street, passed the noses pressed up to the glass and stepped into the buzzing throng that is London's Princi.
For the food lover, Princi looks like food porn. The counter runs along the left hand side of the restaurant with giant bread ovens and shiny loaves in the background. It is stocked up first with Italian pastries, then a glitzy array of cakes, biscuits and slices. Further along come the olive bread sticks, focaccias and pizzas, enticing one down to the amazing and colourful side salads, before the counter intersects with a hot food bar containing meaty meals and various pasta dishes.
But let me start by saying something controversial. As far as the sweet stuff goes, with some notable exceptions, the overall impact of looking at a smorsgasboard of 20 colourful treats oozing with cream, custard and chocolate is actually more magnificent than any one of them, individually, tastes. The croissants and chocolate pastries were the biggest let down for me - expecting the French style pastries I love, I don't bother with the heavier, breadier Italian style pastries here.
The exceptions include the delectable custard filled cannoncini and the chocolate chip biscuits. The Peanut Gallery is addicted to these and if he does not bound in the door on the way home to pick up an evening selection, he is at least blaming me for deterring him from doing so by espousing my ridiculous notion that we should, in the interests of good health, hold back at least one night per week. As we stare into space entranced by the after glow of dinner, it will be a rare night indeed if The Peanut Gallery does not break the silence with a hopeful "Princi?"
On Friday night, the divas and I chose the happy triangle of passionfruit cheesecake, chocolate fudge & biscuit slice (I'm sure it has a more technical Italian name) and a bold newcomer, the lemon custard and sponge slice topped with soft, gooey meringue. The cheesecake is tangy and creamy and the chocolate fudge thing hugely rich. Both are good, but they are not as amazing as you think they will be when faced with a counter-full which could only be conceived by an Italian Willy Wonka on acid. The meringue number was the best.
The pizzas and salads are delicious, although we didn't sample them on Friday. And all are reasonably priced.
Service is chaotic and often disorganised. Serious teamwork and strategic coordination of military precision is required to obtain everyone's food items at the same time. Finding a seat among the communal benches is tough. And what's with the water feature running constantly down the back wall?
However, despite the catches, I still love it. Princi has a late night buzz and enough good stuff to keep us coming back, and to be attracting the crowds in their droves. It's open for breakfast, lunch and dinner until midnight (although I believe the doors are open all night in Milan...).
Princi, 135 Wardour Street, London W1F 0UT.