This classic Italian restaurant is on Lavender Hill. The street’s name comes from the lavender that was once grown in market gardens around here. After the opening of Clapham Junction station just up the road in 1863 the surrounding area was built up with terraces of cheap housing for the workers who moved there from the East End. Lavender Hill was their shopping street – although likely without restaurants in those days.
Donna Margherita is an Italian restaurant and wood-fired pizzeria, and it launched my restaurant reviewing career a few years back. This was one of my first review visits and I was taken by its intimate ambiance as well as its authentic Italian food. But would it be a case of ‘you can never go back’?
They have changed the interior somewhat but it’s still just as cosy, with a nod towards the Continent. Shelves are stacked with bottles of wine as well as speciality Italian food products such as pasta, oils, vinegars and preserves. These goods are not just stage-settings – one can buy them. The tables were filled (and it was a Monday night) with locals and Italians who all seemed to be regulars. They know about Italian food and they all seemed happy with their dishes, so I feel no shame in saying I enjoyed mine too!
Gabriele Vitale, owner and Head Chef of Donna Margherita, is passionate and animated about his home city of Naples and its cuisine. He entered Italian catering college at the tender age of 14 so he has had a good grounding in the Italian culinary arts. Dishes here have the air of home-made, reminiscent of grandmother’s cooking (well, if your grandmother was Italian). They epitomise all the things that made good Italian food popular in the first place.
We started with a most acceptable bottle of house wine and Bruschetta of fresh tomatoes as we scanned the menu for well-remembered items like the pizza, which is remarkable – and there’s no mistaking that it’s from a wood-fired oven. Then we enjoyed a bubbling dish of A’ Parmigian E Mulgnan – Baked fried aubergines with tomato sauce, basil, mozzarella and parmesan. It’s a standard and a great alternative if you are looking for all the tastes of a classic Italian dish but without the pasta. First I would ask why not pasta, and then I would promise that this aubergine dish will hit the spot. Rustic and comforting.
Bread for mopping the bowl
O’scialatiell Ro` Re Ferdinando was our striking main course. Homemade pasta with prawns, langoustines, squid, clams, mussels, tomatoes, and a good dash of chilli – It’s a signature dish here. The pasta was unique, with a distinctive al dente bite which is quite pronounced. This is a chewy pasta and apparently correct for the Naples region. The pasta becomes more important to the dish, contrasting the too-soft spaghetti often encountered in Italian restaurants. It is different but very much to my taste – or should I say texture? Have some bread on hand for mopping the bowl – always more refined than licking the plate, which would be the alternative. You won’t want to miss a drop of this sauce.
Donna Margherita has become an icon. I doubt it has anything to do with my first review, which was glowing, but I was only a fledging scribe with a small audience. No, it’s likely more to do with consistent quality, friendly service and great location. Good to see they are still in there, pitching for authentic and delicious Italian food. Yes, I can go back!
183 Lavender Hill
Phone: +44 (0)20 7228 2660
Monday to Thursday: 18.00 to 22.30
Friday: 12.30 to 23.00
Saturday: 12.30 to 23.00
Sunday: 12.00 to 22.30
Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018