Rod Stewart and I have two things in common (that I know of). The first is that we both enjoy his new brand of whisky. He, because his face is on the label. I, because he sent me a bottle. Well, his PR firm did. It’s not awful.
The second is that we both enjoy an Italian restaurant called Sale e Pepe.
I doubt Rod’s been down there in years but I’m told he used to frequent it. And who can blame him? It’s in a quiet corner of Knightsbridge, off the main road, so it’s easy to pull up, have a large veal milanese, some wine and whatever else, and then depart quite a bit poorer.
Rod is not the only celebrity fan. Priscilla Presley, now the subject of a Sofia Coppola biopic, is one too. Sir Roger Moore was a regular too, which must have raised a few eyebrows.
Sale e Pepe launched in 1974, just before Sir Roderick and the Faces parted company and he went solo.
It was also the year Le Gavroche, London’s most famous French restaurant and sadly closing next year, was adorned with the capital’s first Michelin star. There was also a “three-day week,” apparently, which I have to say sounds greatly appealing, though I understand it was not a favourable time for most.
The restaurant is the type of venue where diners probably still operate on a three-day week, but for different reasons. It is prime west London, a lot of pecorino, even more primitivo; the vongole is good, so is the carbonara. These are dishes often ruined in Britain but for £28, surrounded by people in loafers, Sale e Pepe will uphold Italian tradition on white linen.
It would be reasonable to suggest Sale e Pepe had slipped into the trenches of memory in recent years. Were people bored of massive pepper grinders? For a while, maybe it was frequented only by large men in blue Ralph Lauren shirts. The type of singular and predictable, upmarket but understated restaurant to entertain your wife at, not your mistress. But it was recently bought by a luxury restaurant group and so here we are, a relic, a once-famous haunt, back in vogue.
It is one of so many high-end Italian restaurants in London that go about their business quietly, but in such spectacularly grandiose fashion. It’s a bizarre middle ground. They have neither stars nor many column inches, they are not of the moment, but they are there. There are always people who want elegance, I suppose. Among these are Cecconi’s, Sartoria, Daphne’s, Harry’s Dolce Vita, Bardo St James, Pampero, Bocconcino, Cipriani, San Carlo. To list any more would exhaust my word count.
Sale e Pepe was one of the first to identify an appetite for vajazzled Italian restaurants. A taste of 1960s Italy in the least chic of all the world’s capital cities. And it might be the only one to do mozzarella in carrozza, an oft-uncharted dish where mozzarella is breadcrumbed, fried, and positioned next to a lightening salad. Quite how Italy managed to make deep-fried stringy cheese sexy is beyond me. Testament to a nation that markets its food with remarkable skill.
You could visit Sale e Pepe and order it if you’re as rich as Rod but don’t want to spend all your money on model trains. Here’s the recipe – from veteran general manager Santino Cicciari – if not.
Mozzarella in carrozza
For the mozzarella
125g mozzarella cheese
75g sliced bread
55g panko breadcrumbs
2 whole eggs (beaten)
45g plain flour (seasoned with salt and pepper)
Salt and pepper to taste
For the tomato sauce
450g chopped tinned tomatoes
45g red chillis sliced
12g fresh basil leaves
2 garlic cloves, chopped
120ml extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper as per taste
For the sauce, heat extra olive oil in a saucepan over medium high heat. Add fresh basil, red sliced chilli or pepper flakes and sauté for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add in the chopped tinned tomatoes and stir to combine.
Continue cooking the sauce, until the sauce reaches a low simmer. Reduce heat to medium to maintain a steady simmer. Then let the sauce continue to cook uncovered for about 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until it has thickened and reached your desired consistency.
Stir in the remaining basil leaves, salt, and pepper. Taste the sauce, and season with extra salt, pepper and/or crushed red pepper flakes as needed.
For the cheese, dry the mozzarella with a paper towel and set aside. Place the breadcrumbs in a large, flat bowl then season with salt and pepper and mix well.
Place the seasoned flour and beaten eggs in separate bowls. Coat the cheese first in the flour, then in the eggs, repeat this step to make sure the cheese is well covered.
Roll the mozzarella in the breadcrumbs, pressing the crumbs on to the mozzarella to ensure good coverage. Place on a sheet pan and put in the freezer for 20 minutes.
Heat the oil in a large pot. Remove the mozzarella from the freezer, then fry in a batch until golden brown and crispy outside. Remove with a slotted spoon then place on a paper towel to drain any excess oil. Serve with the tomato sauce and, if you like, a simple salad.