Manicomio is situated in the redevelopment that was once the Chelsea Barracks. It is tucked away opposite Peter Jones near Sloane Square. It is a quite large venture, with outside seating in nice weather, a bar and dining room as well as a conservatory that doubles as a private dining room. Manicomio means madhouse in Italian, reflecting the building's history as an military insane asylum; no doubt in a Hollywood movie there is a potential for a slasher horror film here (ghost of madman possesses chef with cleaver, you get the idea) but fortunately the cooking is very sane, with not a lunatic taste combination in sight. Produce is of a high standard, as one would expect from the Italian importer Machiavelli, which owns the restaurant and provides Harrods and Harvey Nichols with its Italian deli produce. Indeed there is a deli attached to the premises selling the Machiavelli produce. The chefs also have a good pedigree, with Bobby Cabral training at Zafferano and Tom Salt at the River Cafe. The wine list is manageable in size and as well as Italian choices has a smattering of alternatives e.g. the excellent Bonny Doon Pacific Rim Riesling at £23.50 (which retails at £8.49).
The menu is classical in style. I started with salad of wild leaves with a soft boiled duck egg and anchovy dressing. The dressing was nicely balanced and the leaves of good quality, though to me they were not of the level that the ones Zafferano manages to get for its salads (3/10). Better was home-made tortelli pasta filled with ricotta, pecorino nero and broad beans. The pasta had very pleasing texture and the dish worked well as a whole (5/10).
My main course was duck, a fan of Gressingham duck breast cooked pink and resting in cooking juices, alongside a potato cake containing confit of duck leg, tomatoes and wild mushrooms. The duck rested on an unannounced and very tender bed of what may have been spinach (but whose leaf size suggested to me another member of the cabbage family). This was better than Stella's pan-fried whole lemon sole, served on the bone, correctly cooked with mammole artichokes (traditionally from Lazio) though somehow lacking excitement for me (2/10).
Plum tart with yoghurt sorbet was pleasant, though the pastry was just a fraction harder than ideal (2/10) while baked Alaska (hardly Italian, surely?) with rum and raisin ice cream worked well, the meringue nicely made and the ice cream very good (4/10). The bread is home-made here, and is very good indeed. Foccacia and onion bread were extremely good, as were breadsticks (6/10). There are no nibbles offered, and the bread itself is charged extra at £2.50 a helping, while vegetables are also extra at £4-£4.50. Roast potatoes had good texture and were cooked with a little rosemary, while the spinach (if that is what is was) was again tender. Coffee was very of high quality (5/10).
The two problems for me were the service, which was amateurish, and the price. For each of the three courses we either had "who ordered what?" or alternatively dishes confidently presented to the wrong person. In three courses for two people they couldn't get one course correct, which is not what you would hope from a restaurant that clearly has ambitions (just toss a coin and you'd get more accuracy). The waiter recommended that I have the spinach as a side dish despite my asking what vegetables it came with, and being told none (the duck actually rested on a bed of, guess what, spinach). This was clearly an inappropriate recommendation and although he "sold" the extra dish this was sharp practice. The general manager was charming but the head waiter rather curt, and service is an area for improvement in my view based on the experience tonight.
Prices are not outrageous by any means, but are hardly a bargain. Pasta dishes are £9.50 - £16.50, main courses £17.75 - £23.50, desserts £6 - £9. Add in extra vegetables and paying extra for the bread and you are comfortably at the price level of Zafferano, in fact a little higher. Given the lack of nibbles this seems ambitious pricing. However the place itself seems to be prospering, so the residents of Chelsea seem not to be over-sensitive to price. Overall it was a very pleasant experience, and somewhere to which I would return. It is certainly a cut above most Italian restaurants in London. It has potential for a higher mark than this based on the best dishes of this evening.