Italy is my favourite country in Europe. Possibly the world. The combination of its coastline and countryside, history and art, food and wine, all shrouded in seven shades of sunshine and Italian charm, is what sets it apart.
However finding a dining experience in London that comes close to what you might find in Positano, Capri, or even Milan, is more of a challenge then you would expect, especially given the capital’s large Italian population.
Banca in North Audley Street in Mayfair opened in July 2012 as a collaboration between the people behind several of London’s best restaurants (Zuma, Roka, La Petite Maison, Aurelia and Il Baretto). Located on the ground floor of a former Natwest branch (the clue is probably in the name), Banca is good looking in a glamorous, '50s way. The restaurant is framed by a long cocktail bar to the right – busy with flirting Mayfair locals when we visited – and an equally long antipasti preparation area to the rear. The substance is added to the glamour by the cream leather booths and dark wooden tables resting on a square white tiled on floor, sitting under large, oval light fixtures. You could imagine Sophia Loren feeling at home here.
So much for how it looks. Perhaps in response to some stinging reviews by the print and online press, Banca seems to have upped its game. The all-male waiting staff are charming, attentive and knowledgeable, but more importantly, the food is superb. After the requisite freshly baked breads and delicious lightly-fried carrots and courgettes, we went for the warm Fassona beef carpaccio and the deep fried Sicilian prawns & calamari served with spicy garlic mayonnaise. The Northerner is something of a carpaccio connoisseur, so it was high praise indeed when she declared it the best she had ever eaten. The fillet cut was melt-in-your-mouth tender, and beautifully flavoured. My prawns and calamari were very good – crisp, sweet with a only a light covering of batter. For mains we went for the linguine with lobster and ‘datterino’ cherry tomato sauce, and the chargrilled sea bream. The former had the balance of sweet tomato and chilli just right so it complemented, rather then overwhelmed the lobster. The bream was moist, well seasoned and plentiful. Even the Northerner struggled with the volume if not the flavours. The sommelier had recommended the 2010 Val Rose Morrellino di Scansano – a pinot noir-like wine that covered our meat and seafood dishes with plenty to spare. For dessert we shared a lemon Capri sponge cake, with crunchy lemon zest and Limoncello foam for dessert, which was light, with the right hint of citrus. Petite fours and dessert wine rounded off the dinner superbly.
Be warned: you are left in little doubt where you are dining when it comes to settling the bill. With mains firmly planted in the £30 range, and starters hovering at mid-to-high teens, Banca is clearly aimed at the wallets of the Ferrari and Bentley driving Mayfair 'locals'. Yet, it works, as on top of the wonderful food and slightly old world charm of the service and styling, Banca has created an ambiance that is not in keeping with the generally stuffy surroundings. By which, I mean, that it is warm, charming, flirty and fun. Or in other words, authentically Italian.