Located at the very top of Exmouth Market, Paesan is a brand new Italian restaurant serving up the finest 'cucina povera' or (roughly) 'peasant kitchen’, to us Brits. The ideology behind this traditional Italian approach, is - more or less - making the best out of what you have. And Paesan certainly succeeds in that, with small plates that are flavoursome and full of colour.
Paesan occupies the corner building at the end of one of London’s most popular foodie strips, taking the place of that old favourite, Dollar Grills. It’s a little simpler than its predecessor: the big Las Vegas-style lights and chandeliers are gone, replaced by low hanging lighting that wouldn’t look out of place in a traditional trattoria. The sun illuminates the venue nicely throughout the day, with plenty of light streaming in through the windows working their way around the façade. It’s all pleasingly uncluttered, and vintage wooden dining tables and chairs (they look vintage, at least) are surrounded by a perimeter of comfy banquettes.
There’s obviously an effort to keep things looking as traditional as possible, which certainly works. However, the mixture of exposed brickwork, freshly painted walls, and wooden panels do give off a trendy city loft apartment vibe – which is no bad thing either. Downstairs is another wide open space complete with a fully equipped bar and room for dancing, one presumes.
With a location like this, it’s little surprise to see Paesan busy at lunch, as the reputation of Exmouth Market continues to grow. Expect to be dining amongst a flurry of businessmen and women in the search of a rustic slice of Italy, as well as those foodies desperate to try everything before everyone else. The informality of Paesan is reflected in the staff’s garb; there’s no uniform bar aprons. (Staff are all dressed perfectly smartly, mind). Staff also seem pretty well drilled on the menu, which is admirable so soon after opening.
It’s best to order a variety of different plates to get a real feel for the menu – and prices allow for it, thankfully. The chef’s tasting menu (£20 for three courses or £30 for five courses) enables you to try a selection of the restaurant’s finest dishes and is the best bet if you are bewildered by the menu (easily done – there are quite a few options, and ways to order). The menu is divided into sections, beginning with ‘antipasti’ (£4 for one or £11 for three) which delivers a small introduction to your Paesan experience, and is followed by the ‘carne’ option, featuring Italian meats such as cacciatore salami, proscuitto di Parma and coppa di testa.
The next stage of the menu is ‘piccolo’, which is made up of more traditional Italian starters. Arancini is filled with courgette and lemon and served at the very enticing price of just £4. It’s not the most extensive of dishes, though, but the spinach, ricotta and tomato gnudi (a type of gnocchi - £7) certainly is – and all the better for it.
The main plates on the menu are split up into four groups (you can see why it’s easy to get confused), with pizza, pasta, fish and meat all being catered for. The pizza frittas (traditional Neapolitan deep-fried pizzas) use a traditional Italian recipe. The fennel sausage, pomodoro, mozzarella and chilli version (£9) is a tasty alternative to what you are probably used to from a pizza, as is the calzoncino with provola, salami and capers (£9). Don’t be put off by the deep-fried bit, they taste neither greasy nor heavy. Fish dishes available include the calamari and red mullet fritto misto (£9) and mussels impetata with rosemary crostini (£8).
As you would expect from an Italian restaurant there is an array of desserts for the hungry, sweet-toothed diner to choose from. The limone and ricotta crostata (£7) is a delicious take on a cheesecake, with gelato as the perfect, light accompaniment. The indulgent, flourless chocolate and almond moretto (£7) is also good, and served with mascarpone. There is also, of course, a selection of excellent gelato (£5).
San Pellegrino offers a more traditional alternative to the Cokes and other carbonated favourites, but there’s also a more than healthy choice of continental wines and beers, too. Emphasis is also put on the downstairs bar, and the brightly illuminated ‘liquor’ sign lights the way to a basement full of boozy cocktails and plenty of limoncello, naturally. Like a true Italian you can also end your meal in style with a good coffee, and the espressos are certainly that.
The Last Word
Exmouth Market’s newest venue serves up a refreshing change from what seems to be a norm of dull Italian chains or high-end Italians that don’t offer great value. It’s simple, yes, but there’s plenty of flavoursome bang for your buck.