Anthea Gerrie enjoys a taste of Italy at Alto up on the roof at Selfridges London.
While restaurants remained closed for indoor dining, alfresco eateries were king of the castle, the only game in town. But baby, it’s been cold outside, and now the doors are open even the most fashionable outdoor-only offerings like Alto by San Carlo atop Selfridges will have to up their game to compete with rivals offering shelter with their sustenance.
Actually, Alto does have a retractable roof for rain cover, but is open-sided, and was closed altogether by high winds on the date of our original planned visit. The sun was out, however, when we returned the following week, and although breezy outside it felt warm and comfortable at a table over which heat-bearing lanterns hung discreetly.
Alto’s secret weapon is its decor, which does its best to recreate an Amalfi dining terrace at a time when holidays in Italy are forbidden to sun-starved Brits. And the festive idyll starts at ground level; from a dedicated lift in Selfridges fragrance hall diners ascend five floors to a lemon-festooned arbour leading to an expansive yet intimate-feeling dining space awash in greenery and crisp white linen. One can sup and dine here up on the roof during store hours, making everything from aperitivos with cicchetti – the Venetian term for small sharing plates – to a full meal available from noon until 10pm seven days a week.
All Italy is represented by a menu which embraces the rich dairy and truffle dishes of Emilia-Romagna, the seafood of the Veneto, the rich desserts for which Sicily is famous, and a great deal in between. Likewise the drinks – one of us had a Bellini, the cocktail of Prosecco and peach juice invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice (£12.50), the other a glass of deep pink Montepulciano, £8.50 by the glass.
Although it’s suggested that all dishes are for sharing, it’s hard to carve up three ravioli between two, and diners may be reluctant to eat out of the same bowl as fellow diners during a pandemic. We were brought clean plates and cutlery to serve ourselves half-portions of a wonderful dish of ricotta-stuffed ravioli in a rich Pecorino sauce topped with generous slices of truffle (£13.45). Less easy to divide, and somewhat less rewarding, was an order of spaghetti with lobster served in a half-shell which contained only four tiny pieces of lobster (£20.75), less than the half-beast the shell would have contained before the meat was extracted.
It would be hard to imagine a star dish better than the fritto misto, a generous plate containing two large prawns, two pieces of soft-shell crab, numerous calamari rings, and whole whitebait, all fried to perfection in a light-as-air tempura batter.
Accompaniments included a little dish of mayo(good, but with no hint of the advertised tarragon) and another of chili jam, which was more delicate than the description suggests, but a little cross-cultural and redundant – the mayo and lemon wedges were all the dressing needed. At £20.95 this dish was outstanding value – just 20p more than the spaghetti with practically no lobster – and sharing dishes are much less, including burrata with Parma ham and truffle (£13.15), beef carpaccio with rocket and Parmesan (£11.00), plus a wide selection of salads, pizzas, and pasta. Carnivores are well-catered for too Italian favourites like veal Milanese and beef tagliata, as are vegans – think grilled artichokes with mint sauce, fried courgette sticks, and spaghetti puttanesca.
It’s a shame you can only get cannoli – the deep-fried pastry shells filled with sweetened ricotta which are the glory of Sicily – by ordering the selection plate for two. Although the blue glass plate this feast was served on was spectacular, the little squares of pistachio and chocolate cake were somewhat dry, neither they nor the fresh strawberries a match for the sumptuousness of the cannoli. Two glasses of Marsala are included as a digestif, but it all seems like too much; until cannoli become available as an order, better to settle for the excellent panna cotta with berries.
Tell Me More About Alto By San Carlo
Selfridges, 400 Oxford Street, London W1A 1AB
T: 0207 318 3287
Tables for two to six bookable at Alto by San Carlo