For all of our innate stubbornness, Londoners are very flexible when it comes to matters of food and drink. It did, for example, only take the small matter of a pandemic for large swathes of the city to realise that eating outside is actually quite doable and enjoyable if the setup is right.
Fast-forward to us, mid-March, on one of those tantalising and fleeting spring evenings, sitting outside Saponara, enjoying maybe London’s best Romana-style pizza. The little Italian deli and restaurant is in a quiet bit of Islington between the Essex Road and Upper Street, but nothing about this old-school hangout is particularly quiet. The staff are joyful, there are bright Fellini posters and Ferrari flags on the wall, and the pizza is something that cheers everyone up. Yes, the pie topped with freshly cut speck and shavings of grana padano is crisp and salty and all the things you want a pizza to be. But sometimes you just can’t beat gooey, expertly formed, blink and it’s gone, margherita.
Now, to be clear, Saponara doesn’t make London’s most superlative-worthy Italian food. But their pizzas are as crisp and delicious as you can get from an oven that isn’t specifically made for pizzas. That said, their handmade pasta is a little hit and miss. The hits are without doubt the brilliant pasta menu: a handled, hand carved, wooden carb ark that ferries handfuls of gnocchi, tagliatelle, tortellini and more with descriptive flags stuck in each to explain what sauces they come with. We’d recommend sticking to the simple shapes and sauces—your orecchiette and ragu—over anything filled.
If we were betting people, we’d wager that you’re unlikely to find many Neapolitan purists here, singing the praises of the pies. Though we wouldn’t be surprised to find a Stanley Tucci-type character in the room, cracking warm jokes with the owner, host, and ham slicer extraordinaire, and settling in for the night wine in hand. Homely, generous and imperfect in all the right ways. That’s the Saponara way.
Primarily a restaurant but also a nighttime deli (who doesn’t get a 9pm craving for freshly sliced prosciutto?), it’s no surprise that Saponara’s produce is excellent. This creamy ball of burratina is simply served: with fresh rocket and sweet cherry tomatoes. It's perfect.
Saponara’s pizza is Romana-style. It’s thin, it’s crispy, and anyone who has a problem with the inherent sloppiness of Neapolitan pies will be far more relaxed with its structure. Sure, it may miss some of the char and chew of a wood-fired pizza oven, but the quality of Saponara’s marinara sauce and mozzarella mean that this is a delicious pizza.
The same goes but with some high-quality prosciutto, fresh rocket with an actual peppery punch, and shavings of grana padano on top. Yes please.
While it might sound harsh, the most consistently pleasing thing about Saponara’s pasta is the hand-carved contraption the fresh pasta menu is presented on. Of all the handmade shapes and sauces the tortellini ragu is our favourite. It’s rich and savoury and all the things your mind and soul needs on a chilly Wednesday night.