Editor's note - Zucca closed in December 2015.
Zucca (which means pumpkin) opened in March 2010 in Bermondsey Street, a short stroll from London Bridge station. It is the first solo restaurant venture of Sam Harris, who after working as an Egon Ronay inspector trained at as a chef at a number of serious London venues (Harvey Nichols, briefly at the River Café) before working as a private chef for some years prior to opening Maltings, a café.
The dining room was light, with white walls and an open kitchen. A carpet rather than wooden floor moderates the noise, and there is an informal atmosphere with no tablecloths and simple (and rather uncomfortable) plastic chairs. The menu changes in line with what is good at the market, and prices were strikingly fair by London standards, with starters just £4 or so, main courses around £14 and desserts about £4.
The all Italian wine list started at £19 with Pinot Grigio di Leonardo 2009 for a wine that costs around £8, Tocai Fruilano Filip 2007 was £80 compared to a shop price of about £42, while Gaja Barbaresco 2006 was listed at £150 for a wine that costs £87 to buy. It can be seen that mark-up levels are very fair by London standards, and we splashed out and drank the superb Antinori Tignanello 2006 was £95 for a wine that will set you back around £52 in the shops.
Bread is made from scratch (a joy for me) and had excellent soft foccacia with a pleasingly unfashionable use of salt, as well as two styles of ciabatta, with supple texture as distinct from the rock-hard variety that so often appears (16/20 bread).
A salad of artichokes and Parmesan had excellent, peppery rocket leaves and a well-balanced dressing (14/20). Even better was a linguine of tomato and tuna “meatballs”. The pasta was terrific, with excellent texture a tomato sauce with reasonable taste given this is England and not Italy; I was less sure about the tuna pressed into balls, which for me were a little dry (15/20, but the pasta was worth more).
Home-made tagliatelli with squash and Parmesan again had excellent pasta, but the sweetness of the squash needed something to cut through it, maybe some lemon or even some more herbs (14/20). Fish stew consisted of a base of chickpeas and tomato, with pieces of sea bass, salmon, monkfish, swordfish and prawns. The chickpeas were tender and the fish capably cooked; for me the seasoning could have been dialled up a notch, but this was very pleasant (14/20).
Desserts meant that the meal finished on a high note. Panna cotta with peach had genuinely good silky texture, the acidity of the seasonal peach providing balance (16/20). Lemon tart (at just £3.50!) had good pastry and even better filling, the lemon and sugar in harmonious balance, a trick which so few chefs seem to get right (easily 16/20). Even the coffee was of a superior standard, and (other restaurateurs please note) was £1.80 for a fairly generous cup of double expresso.
Service never missed a beat on this busy night (even so soon after opening, every night is a busy night). The bill came to £76 a head, but remember that this included a high-end wine, so it would easily be possible to eat for around £40 a head with a respectable wine. This is a real bargain for cooking of this quality. This place is already prospering, and deserves to.