Chef, restaurateur and international media brand, cheerfully and famously inclusive, Jamie Oliver is the United Nations of the kitchen. And yet one country occupies a special place in Jamie’s culinary universe: Italy. He got his first job at Antonio Carluccio’s restaurant in London, where he met his mentor, Gennaro Contaldo, and was subsequently discovered by British television while working at the Italian-influenced River Café.
This lends a degree of authenticity to Jamie’s Italian, a chain that was launched in 2008 and now has 30-odd branches from Aberdeen to Brighton. Think of it as Pizza Express with attitude and more diverse food. The restaurants have good music, chiaroscuro lighting, friendly service and wall-to-wall Jamie memorabilia. They are also very successful. The flagship in Covent Garden does 1,100 covers on a Saturday.
Wine is popular here, mostly by the glass or the carafe, although a few punters buy the more expensive bottles. The top-end reds are attractively priced: the scented, yet sturdy 2006 E. Pira Barolo Cannubi (£65.80) and the full-bodied, darkly fruited 2008 Allegrini Amarone della Valpolicella (£59.90) are both excellent wines that will appeal to Italophiles in search of something more exciting than Lazio Merlot.
The list is almost all Italian—Champagne is the exception—and, in keeping with Oliver’s promotion of regional food, covers most of Italy’s major wine regions: Veneto, Alto Adige, Marche, Piedmont, Tuscany, Campania, Sardinia, Puglia, Sicily and Friuli-Venezia-Giulia. Not all of the wines are obvious choices, either: it’s great to see an Italian Riesling.
The cheapest wines on the list are three Sicilian-sourced wines bearing the Jamie’s Italian label: a red, a white and a rosé. These are shipped in bulk and offered by the glass, bottle, litre—and presumably goatskin if you’re interested. They are decent enough, with the juicy rosso the pick of the trio, but I’ve had better Italian wines at the price: £17.80 for 75cl.
My advice would be to venture up-market and treat yourself to something more substantial. To go with our pasta first courses and fish mains, we chose the 2010 Pieropan Calvarino Soave Classico (£34.85), one of the best northern Italian whites. It’s crisp, stony and bone-dry, like a Veneto take on Chablis with steely acidity. Lovely jubbly.
Around £25pp for three courses, plus wine; jamieoliver.com/Italian
Where else to go and what to drink
Well-run, deli-restaurant chain named after Antonio Carluccio. Around £24pp
Best white: 2012 Ascheri Cristina Arneis, Langhe Made from Piedmont’s finest white grape, this superb Arneis is zesty and refreshing. Has a slight spritz and plenty of weight and concentration, showing notes of pear and angelica spice with a deliciously bitter twist. £24
Best red: 2011 Fontanafredda Briccotondo Barbera, Piedmont Barbera isn’t as famous as Nebbiolo, its north-west Italian stablemate, but it’s more reliable and less forbidding. This one is great value, with oodles of raspberry and black cherry fruit, soft tannins and a zesty finish. £21
Buzzy Italian chain serving great salads and pizzas. Around £22pp
Best white: 2012 Conviviale Fiano, Puglia One of the loveliest southern Italian white varieties, grown from Puglia to Sicily. This is floral and unoaked, with notes of wild herbs and stone fruit, and appealing, mid-palate texture. Soft, round, flavoursome. £20.25
Best red: 2011 Picco del Sole Aglianico, Campania Why isn’t Aglianico better known? In the area around Naples it is responsible for some of the finest Italian reds. This is an easy-going introduction to the grape, with a touch of sweet vanilla oak, ripe tannins and plush, brambly fruit. £19.85