Ahh—Carluccio’s. Staple of the British high street for years; in fact almost 30 years, Anthony Carluccio (rather charmingly called the ‘godfather of Italian gastronomy’ online) having opened the first Carluccio’s shop in 1991. He expanded the business eight years later into the formula we know today with the addition of an onsite restaurant. There are now 35 London Carluccio’s restaurants, and more scattered around the country; we weren’t heading too far afield, though, to the leafy suburban climes of Richmond, to sample what we were told was ‘the biggest Carluccio’s menu revamp in 10 years’.
I say ‘leafy’ Richmond, but in fact Carluccio’s is almost opposite the station exit, on the main street in the centre of town. Less leafy, more convenient. The classic blue and white awnings are there, and the new matching china is very pretty, but inside has less of the homely warmth of smaller outposts such as Kensington, feeling more like one of the larger and less characterful Italian chains. The carefully-packaged products to take home are still there though, and the friendly, enthusiastic service can’t be faulted.
The menu has been rearranged, with sections now highlighting food coming from either the kitchen or deli, several new additions in every course, and blue boxes highlighting chef’s favourites. We were both immediately drawn to two of the new main options—but first, starters. I went for classic Sicilian arancini (£5.50) and she for the newly added Burrata and prosciutto (£5.95). The latter was excellent—unctuous and salty, with the tang of balsamic vinegar alongside—and the arancini were well-made, though the one containing beef ragu and provolone was surprisingly bland for its ingredients.
Now to the main event at any Italian eatery worth its salt: pasta. We both opted for one of the freshly imagined mains from this section of the menu, she the Spaghetti Vongole (£13.95) and me the Festoni with smoked salmon and vodka (£12.50). Both of these were spot on—pasta the perfect texture, sauces well balanced. The festoni was one of my favourite pasta dishes for a long time (and no, you can’t really taste the vodka other than perhaps in a lingering aftertaste), while the spaghetti’s clams sat happily in their moreish white wine, garlic and chilli coating.
We gave in to temptation and had Truffled macaroni cheese (£4.95)—yet more pasta!—alongside, and didn’t regret it in the slightest despite our groaning stomach walls; there’s a reason it’s such a universal favourite.
We finished replete, unable to countenance puddings… though a cheese board was another matter. Throughout we drank a smooth Gavi (£22.50), floral on the nose and appley in the mouth, that was a good accompaniment to the food without stealing centre stage.
I once looked up the origins of ‘Carluccio’: it comes from Carlo (German root Karl), meaning ‘manly’—but is a diminutive of the form, a pet name. So it’s a contradiction, somewhere between fierce manliness and the pat on the head of ‘little man’. Carluccio’s Richmond echoes that contradiction, with a battle being waged between the slightly lacklustre faceless-chain atmosphere and the mother’s-kitchen embrace of the food. Because this is proper food—no delicate morsels to be Instagrammed or earth-shattering flavour combinations, but food to fill and sustain, to carry you through an evening of friendship, laughter and discussion, dishes to become old favourites and return to. I’d say that makes it pretty fierce food.