There is no great dearth of options when it comes to eating a good plate of pasta in London. We have long been a city of Italophiles. In the 90s, there was the River Cafe: introducing rigorous, seasonal Italian cooking, and serving up pappa al pomodoro and spaghetti al limone in Hammersmith.
In the 2000s, high street chains like Zizzi and Jamie’s Italian established pasta and pizza as the mainstays of budget-friendly dining out for families. In the 2010s, along came the next wave of Italian restaurants with Padella at the forefront – trendy places with long, enthusiastic queues, focusing on fresh pasta made at the bar and small, tightly-formed menus with three or four pasta dishes and a couple of starters.
There is a place for all of them in this city – but a new age has arrived. The Big Mamma group opened their first UK site – a 70’s Capri-style all-day trattoria called Gloria – in 2019. Cue menus dwarfed in their proportion and generosity only by the dishes themselves, and an insistence on the best ingredients, the whole experience set in lush, maximalist surroundings. Three more restaurants in a similar vein followed in quick succession, including the eminently TikTok-friendly Ave Mario. Carlotta is the group’s latest offering to the capital, serving “Neapolitan and Sicilian classics with an Americano twist” on Marylebone High Street.
Carlotta is an exercise in high camp – that oft-ignored mainstay of Italian culture and taste – and it’s also a riotously good time. If the 2020s were once hoped to usher in a new era of the Roaring 20s, that dream has found its longed-for apotheosis in this flamboyant rebellion against minimalism. Behind the golden neon signage lighting up the high street is an Italian-American dining room complete with underlit tables, lampshades the size and colour of overgrown sea shells, and plush chocolate-leather booths.
Fake Gucci (“Guccy”) scarves and vibrant silk boxing shorts are framed on the walls alongside wedding photographs featuring grinning, cigarette-wielding grooms and brides smizing from layers of white taffeta. Downstairs, the open kitchen sits charmingly in what feels like a burlesque club in space if designed by Elio Fiorucci. Aided by the enthusiastic and beaming staff, it’s an extravagant affair from the very beginning.
The menu is brilliantly unwieldy, with the antipasti menu suggesting that groups “get a few and share”. We do and start with their very good and properly ‘sour’ sourdough, a trio of Arancini al Pistacchio, and their Piattino Aperitivo. ‘Piattino’, with its diminutive suffix, implies smallness – what arrives on the table is an oblong ceramic plate piled high with the very best ‘buoni prodotti’.
There’s a trio of olives from Sicily and Liguria; cool, pink, silky slices of Prosciutto di Parma; crunchy polenta-crusted breadsticks; and tiny spheres of Mozzarella di Bufala (their thick tender skin giving way to an inside creamier and much more interesting than a burrata, thanks to the gentle but present note of sourness which defines these bocconcini).
Everything has a firm backbone of intention behind it – the rice in the arancini is perfectly al-dente, and the butter accompanying the bread is not just cultured and whipped, but abundantly flecked with the intense green of freshly-chopped herbs. You could come here with friends and spend a lovely evening with a few bottles of wine and a couple of those antipasti – but then again, you wouldn’t want to give up the second half of that open-handed menu.
And so back to the pasta. It’s all fresh and made in-house, as most diners have come to expect, and there’s that social media favourite, truffle fettuccine made-to-order, with great pomp and ceremony, in a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano. But there’s also thick-cut Paccheri Alla Norma with sumptuously soft aubergines and ricotta al limone, leaving no vegetarian uncared for.
And hand-made tortelloni filled with Cornish lamb ragù, surrounded by a shallow pool of more of that rich salsa al Pomodoro. It’s an intense, savoury dish, the lamb coming through with character from inside its glossy pasta enclosures, and fat, sweet basil leaves floating alongside. The plates are several steps above largesse (the norma arrives in what can only be described as the most beautiful ceramic bucket to ever be produced in Sicily).
The dish of the night, however, was far simpler: Spaghetti con Gamberi, a recipe which often relies on the sweetness of tomatoes and onions for flavour but instead comes bianco, the pasta caramelised in a deep, sticky, rich bisque which tastes resonantly of the ocean. It’s accompanied by two large Sicilian red prawns, and the chef recommends squeezing their heads over the pasta before consuming – a gesture which only lends more opulence to the experience.
Unlike many restaurants popular on social media for their aesthetics, Carlotta works so well because, for all its flamboyance, its focus never wavers from the most important detail – the food itself.
After several orgiastic hours, the dessert menu is still tempting enough to be perused. The Sgroppino – a homemade bergamot sorbet with liquor, limoncello, and champagne – manages to feel like a palate cleanser despite its generous alcohol content.
It leaves us with just enough space for Carlotta’s wedding cake, a ridiculous and wonderful concoction that every table around us has been ordering all night – layers of genoise, vanilla cream, raspberry, and meringue in the style of a small (but not that small, because this is still Carlotta) personal wedding cake. It is the most Carlotta of desserts: utterly camp, knowingly excessive – and obsessively good.
While we’re not lacking good Italian food in this city, it can sometimes feel like we’re missing a little bit of extravagance. Carlotta delivers, rapturously, on both.
by Ismene Ormonde