Amico Bio Restaurant, London

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Amico Bio is a vegetarian, organic Italian restaurant in London, created by Pasquale Amico (whom you can see above, ready to greet us as we arrived). We decided to arrange to eat there having read a review in the Daily Telegraph. Not that it was a complimentary review, far from it, but in my opinion anything which that newspaper comes down hard on is probably going to be quite agreeable to the average, thinking human being. I’ll actually quote the opening paragraph as it’ll give you an idea of what I mean, and for the fact that I hope it’ll provide you with the same sort of condescending yet fulfilling giggle that it gave me when I read it.

“Amico Bio is a charming idea, in a charming building, in a charming, higgledy-piggledy Smithfield street, and the service is lovely, and the atmosphere is sweet and the food is just awful. It’s enough to give vegetarianism a bad name, but anything’s enough for that.”

You can imagine it, can’t you; over-educated, under experienced Henry and Zoe, skulking around in their welly boots and wax jackets and terribly, terribly scared of immigrants, Irish, Scots, Muslims and of course tree-hugging soap-dodgers who don’t eat meat…  

Anyway, the review piqued our interest so I have to thank it for that. And I also have to say that the opening paragraph is not entirely wrong! Amico Bio is a charming idea, in a charming area, and the service and atmosphere is indeed lovely and sweet…only, the writer wasn’t fair about the food, because the food is lovely too. But their lowly view of the place isn’t surprising, really. People who announce their dislike of vegetarianism so boldly probably aren’t going to be the best judges of such a restaurant and if they’re not used to organic, decent food where subtleness is everything they may well think the fare bland compared to the synthetic tastes that sub-standard, non-organic restaurants tend to smack you in the face with…

We’d had a pleasant afternoon visiting St Paul’s Cathedral – not the best London attraction for photographers as you can’t take pictures inside but then again the outside is spectacular so it’s worth an hour or so of anybodies time – and then made our way north to Smithfield area.

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Amico Bio is located along the street you see to the right in the photo above. Smithfield market is to the middle left of the image.

We took a few minutes before ordering to create some photos. Much of the wall art is printed on wood and Pasquale explained that the photos all represented his family, starting with his grandfather and then moving onto his father – who used to own a bakery in Southern Italy – to his cousins who now manage the family restaurant in Naples and the family farm further south.

“The family farm has been organic for 20 years,” Pasquale explained, “and we count Tescos among our customers. We also export our produce to restaurants throughout Europe, including our two restaurants here, of course.”

Here are some of the images we made in the restaurant before ordering.

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‘Putting you at your ease’ is a particular gift that restaurateurs from Mediterranean regions often have and Pasquale and the rest of his staff are no exception. I’m personally not that much of an extrovert or confident with strangers but among Italians I so often become the person I like to be; sociable, friendly and relaxed.

As we took our photos the staff could be heard chatting at the bar, in Italian. The music playing was alien to me, it sounded like Italian chanson, as if Jacques Brel had been born in Campania. I liked it a lot; together with the staff’s Italian chat it really set the sort of relaxed, authentic atmosphere I enjoy.

Some of the menu options were quite unique but the staff were happy (and knowledgeable enough) to explain, as well as recommending a wine that would suit our choices.  It was the house red, from Pasquale’s hometown. Served slightly below room temperature and with a 13% punch it was a very acceptable house wine. 

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Before we get onto our choices I’ll say that over the past 5 months of travel through Asia, Africa and Europe we’ve eaten out almost every single night so consider we’ve enough experience to differentiate between ok food and an exceptional dining experience, and between chefs who are workers and chefs who are artists. Pasquale’s an artist – one who circulates and happily chats to his customers – and as for the food we experienced at Amico Bio well, when food is tasty and using ingredients from an organic, biodynamic farm prepared and cooked by a sensitive and intelligent person it can almost move you to tears, as it did us.

For starters Lamia had the tomato bruschetta.

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“Really fresh, sweet tomatoes and perfectly toasted crunchy bread,” Lamia said, “delicately spiced with Italian herbs to allow the fresh flavours a chance to shine. Up there with the best bruschetta I’ve ever had. Excellent.”

I had the salad.

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There was a very large bowl of fresh leaves and thinly sliced carrot and courgettes accompanied by seven bowls of extras such as peppers and aubergines, the idea being that I could add as much as or as little as I wished. After a little taste of each I decided I liked them all and tipped them into the bowl. The salad leaves were crunchy, the fennel an understated onion substitute as far as texture went, the tofu of medium firmness and the overall feeling was one of subtleness, as an organic dish should be. As you can see, the portion size was large; I’d suggest that a light eater would be satisfied with this one dish for lunch.

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Lamia’s second was ravioli with cheese.

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“The waitress told me the pasta is handmade, it’s quite thick and when you chew through, the smoky cheese flavour hits you,” she said. “There’s also disks of stretchy mozzarella inside and a certain sweetness to the sundried tomatoes that is delightful against the smoky cheese. The smokiness of the cheese is just right. I don’t mean for me but for the dish; I think it’d be just right regardless of your taste. There’s also just enough sauce oozing out of the cherry tomatoes so that there’s something to moist your pasta around in without swamping the dish.”

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I had the risotto of the day.

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It was an intelligent dish. The peppers tasted real and that’s a joy to experience; it’s so rare to find a green pepper that actually tastes of a green pepper unless you dine at a restaurant that prides itself on using fresh produce. They had an earthy feel and the rice had a creamy consistent base that retained the texture of each grain. Naturally you’d expect a good chef to handle risotto well but that’s no reason not to praise them for it when they get it right.

We hadn’t even gotten to our mains yet but the pasta and risotto gave us the confidence to start getting excited for the main course.

Lamia had the bean and veg burger.

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“The burger held together well,” Lamia said. “We’ve had a few veggie burgers so far on our travels and so many of them are of a poor consistency, but this one does justice to a good burger. The chips are homemade and come with ketchup and sour cream; they could be bigger to be honest because that’s how I like them. The burger bun is pan-fried and lightly spiced, a very interesting Italian take. I couldn’t finish it all, it’s a huge portion.”

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I had vegetable and seitan kebabs.

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These chargrilled wraps had a little chili heat and a light and refreshing cucumber and yogurt dip shown around the side of the plate. It was a lot of food for £10. Having had a few bites of Lamia’s burger I’d say that was more my style as these were just too subtle to be my perfect main. I enjoyed them – would even have them again someday for a lunch – but on the night my meal was building up to something different from this, something with more gravitas, which these lacked but the burger did seem to have.

For dessert Lamia had tiramisu and I had the strawberry cake with tiramisu ice cream.

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“Strong coffee flavour, very creamy yet still light and with crunchy ladyfingers soaking up the cream of tiramisu, I love it,” said Lamia

I had the strawberry cake with tiramisu ice-cream, which smelled really lemony and was served warm. The tiramisu ice-cream was served just above room temperature; it was ok but I wasn’t sure if it was a good ice cream or a so-so gelato. This is no real criticism; the art of making gelato goes back 500 years or more and only the most skilled artists excel at it, which is why it’s so hard to find a good one (personally I’ve never had a decent one outside of a few places in Italy). I dipped the cake in it to offer some coolness and although there was only the slightest hint of strawberry in the cake a zingy punch was provided by a couple of lemon slices on the side.

During the meal Lamia had a blood orange juice to drink, whilst I had the organic beer.

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“It’s a nice juice that’d be perfect for lunch,” was Lamia’s verdict on the blood orange, “it’s sweet, citrusy and perfectly fizzy.”

My organic beer was light, golden in colour and halfway in taste between a regular lager and the sort of tasty ale you’d expect a microbrewery to produce.

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Lastly, Lamia had a chocolate liqueur (“it’s like chocolate sauce with alcohol added”) and I had an aquavita – a fiery fruity digestive.

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As we were drinking it Russell Brand walked in and ordered tea and salad. Perhaps he’d read the Telegraph review as well, or maybe he was a regular. From what I’ve heard of him he seems a discerning man with taste so whilst it was a surprise to see him there (I don’t tend to be able to afford to visit places frequented by celebrities) it wasn’t a surprise, if you get what I mean, bearing in mind how good the restaurant is.

We had a relaxed, fulfilling dining experience at Amico Bio. The staff were exceptionally welcoming and genuine and the dishes were tasty and well prepared. We believe that this is a place where you can let your guard down and be assured of getting tasty, organic food at a very fair price (a 3-course dinner with wine can be had for under £20).

Amico Bio have two restaurants in London, the one we went to in Cloth Fair and another at 43 New Oxford Street. To learn more about Amico Bio, please visit http://www.amicobio.co.uk/

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