It’s hard to know at what point we fell in love with Il Portico in Kensington. It might have been the laughter from the Italian family tucking into huge bowls of hearty pasta as we walked to our table. Or maybe the traditional dumb waiter, operated by yanking the rope the old fashioned way to get plates bearing Dorset squid drenched in chilli-laced oil or fat, juicy prawns in a zesty sauce from the basement downstairs up to the dining room.
It could have been the photos on the walls, documenting years of the history for the Chiavarini family, which has been bringing Italian food inspired by their home region of Emilia Romagna to Kensington High Street for six decades.
Or maybe the quiet little booth that felt like home from home as we planned out a feast that would take us on that blissful journey starting with cured meats, sliced gossamer thin, parmesan piled high, each piece promising another moreish savoury hit, and viscous, syrupy aged balsamics right through pasta dishes to meat from the family’s own farm.
Or maybe it was the fact that Il Portico was Jamie’s find. The man who has little say in where we eat heard a rave review and declared we simply had to go. Other than marrying him, it may be the best decision I’ve ever made. Because this is the real deal. You can’t escape its history, its story, and that Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe experience of walking into a restaurant in the heart of London and suddenly finding yourself slap bang in a traditional Italian trattoria.
As we quaff wine from the family’s vineyard over in Emilia Romagna, the journey to west London falls away amidst the ongoing laughter and joviality of the table in the corner along with mouthfuls of cured meat, cubes of a worryingly addictive 60-month aged parmesan and a dish of balsamic vinegar that I would happily swig by the vat on a daily basis if it were acceptable, which I don’t think it is.
What is acceptable, however, in a restaurant like this is ordering as many courses, dishes, in whatever way you want. Which is lucky really, with the Mannings in town. Had we known the size of the starters, we may have skipped following our meat feast, but as novices we went for the squid, ploughing through generous chunks doused in piquant, citrusy chilli oil.
Reluctant to skip any offer of fresh pasta, we shared squid ink tagliolini, the black mound studded with cherry tomatoes and seafood with the crown jewel of a lobster.
It was enough for a family, and too delicious to leave. And so we risked a food coma by ploughing through, joining our neighbours in the corner with our levels of joviality as more of that oh-so-lovely wine slipped down.
Il Portico may be far from the Chiavarinis’ motherland, but that hasn’t stopped the family staying true to the roots of their cuisine. Rather than bring their meat from Italy, they brought Italy to Dorset where their family farm provides much of the produce, including the wild game that reminds you this is about as far from Zizzi or Carluccio’s as you can get.
Pino Chiavarini, Il Portico’s original owner, runs the farm after handing over the reins of his restaurant to son James who runs it alongside Marianna. Two doors down, you could almost miss Pino – James’ father’s namesake – which operates as a wine bar and restaurant serving traditional pizzas and a whole load of dishes we’ve been eyeing up as we plan our return.
But while you’ll find ‘tapas’ style dishes like burrata and oysters with N’duja or gorgonzola-topped pizzas at Pino, what you might not find is the sexy hunks of well-reared meat that you’ll get at Il Portico. A chunky veal chop, tender and moist, with a herb-laced sauce that leaves you wanting to lick your plate.
A stack of Kent lamb cutlets, again heavy on the herbs but more than able to carry them along with the Barolo that forms the base of the sauce. The kind of cutlets that you want to grasp by the well-trimmed bone and gnaw until every bit of sweet, tender meat is stripped from them and in your struggling belly.
Unable to bring ourselves to leave and step back out of the wardrobe into reality, we share a slice of unnecessary cheesecake. It’s not our favourite, but it’s hard to tell whether that’s anything to do with the quality or the fact we’re too over-excited after each spotting the frenetic activity in the kitchen as we passed en route back to the table, hypnotised by the well-choreographed dance of a team of chefs flambee’ing, fry and plating with precision while simultaneously shouting instructions and talking in raised, passionate voices.
Of course, it could also be due to the several espresso martinis that we saw fit to finish with – a reminder that the essential for this all-too-common cocktail really is decent coffee, and where better to get it than from Italians.
So good was that trip to Il Portico that I will never forget the moment Jamie sat, wine in hand, smile on face, and declared that all he wanted for his birthday was to be back in that place, recreating that moment, and eating more of that food in our own little slice of Italy right here in England.
And so we did just weeks later, sharing those meats and that parmesan with friends, hoping – yet knowing – that they would like it.
We didn’t completely re-trace our steps through the menu, veering away from that squid ink tagliolini to try those fat, moist prawns we’d spotted last time, mopping up the lemon-filled, garlicky sauce with hunks of fresh bread along with light pillows of homemade gnocchi in a heart attack-inducing gorgonzola sauce full of the warmth of nutmeg and the crunch of walnut.
Lamb chops made an appearance that night too, along with a few game specials but the clear winner was a classic wild venison and pork belly ragu, stirred through thick ribbons of tagliatelle with a dusting of parmesan on top. So simple, yet so often lacking in the rich, flavour-filled meatiness that comes with decent fat content, slow cooking, and great ingredients.
We had espresso martinis that night too, which might explain why the pictures end here, but came away even deeper into our love affair with Il Portico. And why not, when there’s that much to love? From those hefty plates of food, as big on flavour as they are on size, to that delicious wine. But in all honesty, as ever, it’s about far more than that.
It’s about those pictures on the wall, those chefs in the kitchen, that vintage dumb waiter, and the fellow diners who make up the heart of what this place is. It’s about that family in the corner, laughing and delving into bowls of pasta and plates of meat, the elderly couple behind us who have clearly been dining there for decades, and the four gentlemen across the way who didn’t even have to ask for the Kir that they’ve been starting their meal with for more than a few visits.
Those people are testament to what Il Portico is. A place that gets into your soul as well as your belly, calling to you in the same way Narnia did to the Pevensie children. A place with a story, a history, and a legacy that will undoubtedly see many more people enjoy its delights – and plenty of return visits from us.
[We paid in full on both occasions at Il Portico]