San Daniele Del Friuli is a glorious neighbourhood trattoria serving homely Italian food to an appreciative crowd of locals and well-heeled Arsenal fans.
Situated on the corner of Highbury Park, the exterior is unassuming and barely distinguishable from the family homes nearby. Inside, the dining room is a little corner of Italy – framed football shirts and maps of the old country adorn the walls and white-clothed tables are squeezed into every nook and cranny. It feels like a chaotic family living room, in a surprisingly good way. The staff provide a pleasant buzz of Italian voices as they chat animatedly while they work.
Relaxed and welcoming, the restaurant is alive with conversation and laughter. A soundtrack of Scott Walker and Nat King Cole underpins the hubbub. Not the ideal venue for a romantic meal, but excellent for big family lunches and groups of friends. The restaurant is madly busy on match days and counts Arsene Wenger and Nick Hornby among the regulars who gather to celebrate an Arsenal win. Service is enthusiastic and friendly, if somewhat haphazard at times.
Huge plates of pizza and pasta are swiftly delivered. Starters include San Daniele’s famous prosciutto, served plain or with a slice of melon. A mass of crisp calamari fritti comes with homemade tartare sauce and insalate tricolore offers the perfect balance of creamy mozzarella, sweet tomatoes and fresh basil, drizzled with zesty olive oil. Pizzas are as they ought to be – light, crisp base, slightly charred on the underside, smothered in piquant tomato sauce and bubbling mozzarella. The high quality and freshness of the ingredients is reflected in the choice of toppings. No slimy supermarket salami here.
Main courses are an orgy of Italian staples. Seafood spaghetti arrives, an unctuous, garlicky concoction, generously swimming with prawns and mussels, properly seasoned and finished with olive oil.
Easily the greediest and perhaps the best dish on the menu is the scallopina Milanese – whole veal escalope coated and fried in egg and breadcrumbs and served with a side of spaghetti ragu. If that seems overwhelming, calves liver, steak and chicken supreme are cooked simply and served with numerous choices of sauce; from marsala wine and whole green peppercorns to butter and sage.
Garlic and rosemary roast potatoes are sensational – golden, herb encrusted outside with hot, fluffy interior.
The usual suspects populate the dessert menu. Tiramisu is an indulgent coffee-scented goo. Chef’s seasonal fruit tarts make a common appearance alongside the obligatory gelato. A very satisfying two-course meal with a bottle of better-than-house wine will cost about £55 for two.
The drinks menu remains faithful to Italy throughout. It takes you from San Pellegrino to cappuccino and from Peroni to Barolo without straying once. The wine list is a tour of the country and if the owner is in, he will knowledgeably advise according to your food. Friuli is a region with an ancient winemaking history and a bottle of the area’s Tocai provides a good value and distinguished partner for seafood, in the mid-price range. Wines run from unexciting house at £11.50 up to £40. Prosecco represents fizz at a fair £19.
The Last Word
San Daniele Del Friuli serves carefully prepared, unpretentious Italian food, with seasonal specials offering added variety for its army of loyal fans.