Cantina del Ponte at London Bridge
Cantina del Ponte Trattoria & Bar has occupied pride of place on Butler’s Wharf for nearly 17 years. With stunning river views and a generous al fresco area, it’s the perfect place for a long lazy lunch in the sun – or the pouring London rain, in our case. Luckily, there’s a lovely warm welcoming interior to make you feel cosy on the damper days.
The restaurant has recently appointed a new head chef, Angelo Albera, formerly of Etrusca group restaurants Zuccato, Taberna Etrusca, and Percento. He has been hard at work on the menu, and we’ve been invited to come and try a selection of his new dishes. Cantina regulars need not fret – signature favourites like Spaghetti with Palourde Clams and Lasagne alla Bolognese haven’t been replaced. But after trying some of Albera’s new dishes today, the old ones may well have some competition.
We started with a selection of breads – all made on site – accompanied by a dish of full, fruity olive oil and a sweet balsamic. Small dishes of mixed olives soon appeared as well. Everything was delicious – especially the red pepper focaccia – and we had to be careful not to fill up too soon. Not careful enough, as it turned out – if we’d known the spread we were in for, we barely would’ve eaten a mouthful.
Before beginning the meal in earnest, Albero came and introduced himself, speaking of his passion for fresh, seasonal ingredients and true-to-form Italian food. Over the next three hours he sent out miniature (and some not-so-miniature) samples of dishes from the à la carte menu, plus some mains of our choice which we shared between us. It was an excellent opportunity to really get to the heart of the menu – while the variety may have been a little overwhelming, it was also quite illuminating: themes were developed and explored between dishes, patterns emerged, and we got a better sense of the overall quality of the dishes than we could with a starter and a main each.
The first dish was the Burratta con caponata siciliana (burrata with aubergine caponata, pine nuts and raisins). The burrata was fresh and milky, spilling over an aubergine salad well-served by the addition of pine nuts and raisins. Meanwhile the new Insalata di polpo e patate (octopus salad) arrived: an attractive pastel dish studded with taggiasche olives and bright red plum tomato halves. The texture of the warm octopus was excellent: meaty with a touch of crunch; there were some perfectly done potato pieces, and lashings of olive oil drawing the flavours together. Next came the Porcini fritti con fonduta (breaded cep mushrooms with fontina cheese fondue). This one seemed to be more about texture than the taste; the mushroom lent a silky inner to what was essentially a mouthful of deep-fried crumbs. But it was followed by a beautifully presented dish of Carpaccio di manzo con rucola e parmigiano (beef carpaccio, rocket and parmesan) simultaneously sharp, tangy and mellow, and it rounded off our starters very refreshingly.
Next up were the small plates of Cantina mains. The Spinach and ricotta cannelloni was among one of the best around: the texture of the pasta was superb, the filling light yet creamy, and there was just enough tomato sauce smeared on top. Next was a rather tentacular-looking Risotto ai Frutti di Mare (seafood risotto) topped with a pearlescent clam and heavily flecked with parsley. The texture of the risotto itself had us divided. Some prefer it al dente, with a fair bite to the rice, so this one could seem too soft and fluid. The flavours, however, were good – it was rich and buttery, with the tomato and parsley adding just enough zing to save it from over-weightiness. We continued the seafood theme with Taglioni all’Aragosta, a neat nest of tomatoey taglioni strands topped with lobster and rounds of red chilli. Again, we were not convinced by the texture; the pasta was overcooked. Meanwhile, the tomato seemed like an unnecessary extra. Perhaps staglione simply tossed with lobster, olive oil, chilli, garlic and parsley would have worked much better.
We ended our seafood streak with the Paccheri al Ragu di Salsiccia al Finocchio – paccheri with a sausage and fennel ragu. This one was a stand-out. In contrast to the last dish, the pasta was absolutely perfect, its al dente density complementing the chewiness of the sausage mince and the soft fennel pieces. It was a riot of salty freshness reminiscent of the dishes in northern Italy.
We followed Albero’s selections with some choices of our own. The Filetto Di Gallinella in Guazzetto Con Cozze E Zucchinne (red gurnard fillet with mussels, fresh tomato and courgettes) looked spectacular, but didn’t win us over. The flavours were pleasant but not striking, and texturally the dish needed more variation – some crunch in the vegetables to offset the soft chewiness of the seafood (again, the fish was slightly overcooked) would have been welcome. The Spiedino Di Gamberi E Fregola Sarda (Tiger prawns with fregola, olive oil, lemon and parsley) was much more impressive – the fregola was deliciously lemony and piquant in contrast to the more sober prawns. Our favourite in the end was the Ossobucco alla Milanese con Risotto (ossobucco with saffron risotto). The flavours of the risotto were excellent, fresh and zesty, and the slow-cooked meat came apart with a fork. Again the rice could be a little too cooked for diner’s tastes, but it was consistent with the last one, which makes us think it’s a matter of the chef’s personal preference rather than careless execution.
After all this, we somehow found room for dessert. True to form, five different dishes arrived, and they were all very good: nothing was overly sweet, and the portion sizes were perfect. There was a warm Tortino al Cioccolato; its crisp crust breaking to spill a rich gooey interior, accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream resting on a bed of amaretti biscuit sand (full marks for texture here!). The tiramisu was all about the cheese (we would prefer a little more biscuit) but tasty nonetheless, and the cannoli was wrapped in a stand-out pastry. Our runaway favourites were the two fruit-based desserts. The Panna cotta con prugne allo sciroppo (panna cotta with poached plums ) would have stolen our hearts if the Fichi Al Forno Con Mascarpone E Amaretti (roasted figs with mascarpone and amaretti biscuits) hadn’t got there first. The panna cotta was delicate and only just sweet, and the plums, while syrupy, retained the memory of their fresh-picked flavours. Meanwhile, the warm sweet figs with creamy mascarpone and crunchy biscuit crumbles was another triumph of texture and taste that I would definitely come back for.
Overall, the food at Cantina del Ponte is very good. The savoury dishes are heavily dosed with olive oil and parsley (a big plus in our book) and their dessert menu is not one to be skipped, however full you might be. They also have a comprehensive wine list – mostly Italian – and good coffee. Certain dishes, however, could use a little more attention and tweaking to lift them to the high standards Albero is clearly capable of.
Cantina del Ponte: 49/60
To book a table at Cantina del Ponte, 36C Shad Thames, London SE1 2YE, call 020 7403 5403 or visit their website here.