Soul Food: Maremma

Nick Buglione takes a trip to little Italy.

Nick BuglioneYou can have lived most of your life in Brixton and never worked out Montego Bay, the curiously random Caribbean place by the “George Canning” (now Hootananny) that opened when it felt like it, and only occasionally felt like it.

Now, reborn as Maremma, celebrating the flavours of Tuscany and, along with Naughty Piglets, turning this somewhat unheralded dining junction into a micro gastro boulevard.

Nothing overdramatic about the light airy upstairs bar and kitchen area and downstairs dining room, lightly distressed brickwork, moderately cool copper pendant lighting, banquettes and “boarish” iconography. The boar is an emblem of the Maremma, coastal area of western central Italy, bordering the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Guardian calls it “Tuscany for the cognoscenti”. A place of hunters, with game and seafood embedded in its culinary DNA.

Maremma, Brixton branch, when we go, has just emerged from its soft launch and is into full stride. As mentioned on these pages before, two interesting things appear to be happening. One, the understanding and enjoyment of devolved regional cuisines, in this case a part of a part of Italy I had barely heard of, and, two, Brixton’s “little Italy” spike of new regional Italian restaurants.

The menu is classically structured. Antipasti, primi, secondi and contorni. Starter, main and dessert, with an extra pasta “small plate” course thrown in. Maremma isn’t cooking for Instagram; there are no extravagantly cheffy flourishes, the dishes are pretty because they are.

Acquacotta Maremmana sums this up. Classic “peasant” dining, this is the lightest of vegetable broths, pimped with a poached hen’s egg. Similar to Portuguese caldo verde in spirit, a “Cinderella” soup of “cooked water”. Polpo alla Griglia, chargrilled octopus tentacle on a fava bean puree and drizzled with parsley oil, was another example of confident simplicity, big on flavour from the grill. All gastro menus seem to have octopus these days. Coastal Tuscans have been cooking it for centuries.

I know some of the ways of the boar (family holidays in southern France where the local hunters occasionally gave us a huge chunk of boar they had shot). Pappardelle with wild boar ragù “primi” fused home-made pasta with a rich, slow cooked, “heritage” ragù. Big flavour, think pork with a gamey injection.

Hosts Alice Staples and Dickie Bielenberg have also curated a genuinely interesting wine list, more or less exclusively from the Maremma. And will happily talk you through it. We had a lovely invigorating vermentino bianco (from Elba) and a couple of deep robust reds (by glass, carafe or bottle). I am not a connoisseur of the ways of wine, more interested consumer, so letting Dickie and Alice suggest and supply is just how I like it.

Fortified, our main courses maintained the simple, precise cooking. Chargrilled tagliata of onglet (hanger steak) with rocket could barely be more minimalist. Perfectly rendered steak overlayered with smokiness. Wood baked hake, clams, samphire and aioli, ditto. Simple, and elegant. Great British Menu judges bang on about how tricky it is to get hake just right. This is moist, flaking and not bullied by the aioli.

These are all the kinds of dishes, I’d cook at home but not remotely as well. Homely heritage dishes, elevated, but retaining their regional soul. In a local, neighbourhood place, elevated but retaining its regional soul. They also do a spuntini menu of focaccia, olives and arancini to go with cocktails for aperitivo hour.

We are a long way from Montego Bay.

36 Brixton Water Lane, SW2 1PE | 020 3186 4011 | maremmarestaurant.com

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