Marcella is the sister restaurant to the celebrated Artusi in Peckham, a part of south London that’s come up in the world in recent years (thanks in part to a food scene that positively throbs with innovation). The new sibling is in Deptford High Street, where the coming-up-in-the-world thing is, to be truthful, not so far advanced, despite an elegant baroque church and the irresistible allure of what some savants claim to be London’s first railway station (the station was recently demolished and rebuilt, but its original Carriage Access Ramp has been handsomely restored: it now plays host to a little row of bars and small businesses).
One of the consequences of this is that if you rock up to Marcella wanting to be fed, but you haven’t been able to book (and if there are fewer than six of you, you won’t have been able to book), your options for entertainment while you’re waiting are pretty limited. You can explore the Carriage Access Ramp and the elegant baroque church; you could even go to a bar (though if you have any sort of a soul I implore you to boycott Job Centre on the High Street, surely the most tastelessly cloth-eared act of gentrification to be seen on these shores since the dark days of the Cereal Killer Café).
But the chances are you’ll be tired and a bit hungry, and you’ll maybe be asking yourself why you didn’t go into town, or even nearby Greenwich, not that the food scene there throbs with much in the way of innovation; and you’ll ruefully concede that you’re here now so you may as well just park yourself in Marcella’s basement bar, which is perfectly fine, well stocked and expertly staffed, but smells very faintly of drains if we’re being completely honest.
Anyway. Several negroni sbagliati later (this is a “mistaken” or, we were once brightly told, “f----ed-up” negroni, made with prosecco instead of gin), we took our seats at the counter that sits inside the front window of the restaurant part. We had an excellent view of some carp, swimming around in a tank in the window of Island Buka, a Nigerian restaurant across the street.
All of a sudden I realised we were in the very spot which, in a picture on Marcella’s website, is occupied by a couple in, let's say, early middle age: a slightly gaunt and utterly miserable-looking man wearing an incongruously jaunty shirt, and a woman who is looking longingly away from him and towards a girl in a stripy top in the doorway. The picture is really more about signalling Marcella’s pared-down, grown-up aesthetic, all crisp neutrals and Louis Poulson Artichoke light fittings, than it is about plumbing the mysteries of the human heart; but I have to say it didn’t augur much in the way of joy.
Still, the food was good, or fairly good. Artusi is named after a great 19th-century Italian gastronome, author of one of the first bestselling books to be written in Italian rather than Emilian or Tuscan or whatever. We guessed Marcella must be a homage to Marcella Hazan, the food writer credited with breaking balsamic vinegar in the USA. In which case the restaurant really ought to be called “Hazan” – or “Polini”, her maiden name. But “Marcella” strikes a more welcoming note, I guess.
The cooking is not quite as pared-down – nor quite as grown-up – as the decor. Fried artichokes were good, the leaves tawny and crunchy, the heart waxy and firm; but they came with aioli rather than a simple squeeze of lemon, as if the management feared their largely under-40 clientele would riot if presented with a menu that didn’t have mayonnaise on it. “Confit old spot jowl”, though, was wonderful, hours in the cooking, served with a musty peach mostarda.
Pasta dishes looked great: tagliatelle with girolles, a Sicilian-style bucatini with sardines, the holy trinity of aglio olio e peperoncino. They’re all available in two sizes, though of course that means nothing until you know what those sizes are. But it was late, and we’d gone a little heavy on the “small plates” – and the “large plates” promised to be large indeed. So we moved straight on to those.
Swaledale lamb was beautifully cooked: two rare hunks of rump, a crisp comma of slow-cooked breast. Mackerel was plump and creamy with freshness. But in both cases the protein on the plate came liberally accessorised (a smoky aubergine purée with the lamb, “confit tomatoes” with the fish and lashings of sauce with both), yielding a sort of upmarket school-dinner effect. Our attempts to share led to a certain amount of mess – though there are two Pantagruelian “sharing plates”, stuffed bream with fennel and clams and an 80-day-old fore rib of Hereford beef.
When we left Marcella, pausing only to say a fond farewell to the carp (we’d demurred at puddings, which are simple and Italian – sfogliatelle, sgroppino), it was with mixed feelings. We’d eaten well, or fairly well; everyone was friendly; there was a buzz about the place. If it’s a fudge of sorts between a traditional Italian menu and a modern small-plates operation – well, why not?
And yet it was hard to avoid a sense of decisions being taken in Marcella’s interest rather than ours. Partly it was the layout of the room. Most of the normal, table-like tables were given over to large parties of hooting millennials; the twos were confined to the margins, perched side by side on high stools, facing the walls or the windows. It felt like a place for mates, not dates. No wonder the guy in the shirt looked so sad.