Meandering along the streets of Clerkenwell, I found myself pondering why it had taken me so long to dine at Luca, a stalwart of Italian food with a distinctive British twist. Owned by the Clove Club, this Michelin-starred restaurant disguises its culinary skills behind a façade reminiscent of a local trattoria, with its inviting green exterior and modest double wooden doors. Crossing the threshold, the interior unfolds from a snug area by the bar, perfect for a quick bite or a drink, into a surprisingly spacious dining room, bathed in light and offering a welcome sense of privacy rare in the bustling London dining scene. Here, at our secluded round table near the private dining area, was the perfect setting for a long-overdue reunion with two old friends from my days in the wine industry.

Neal, renowned as one of the world’s premier wine critics, had recently penned an article on mid-19th-century First Growth Clarets, igniting our conversation with discussions of vintage wines, travel, and, of course, delicious food. Joel, though not a professional in the trade, has an expert knowledge of Italian wines, evidenced by his choice of a special bottle for us to share, a 2016 Podere Le Boncie Le Trame from Tuscany. Unfortunately, the wine was slightly corked, so a suitable replacement was chosen from their extensive list. I forgot to jot down what it was, unfortunately. 

Lunch started with an immediate consensus on the exceptional quality of the bread – a white potato sourdough made by the acclaimed Dusty Knuckle bakery. This seemingly simple concoction of flour, water, salt and natural yeasts set a high bar, establishing anticipation for what was to follow to follow. It’s lovely to find a restaurant that places such trust in the expertise of local artisans, and in doing so, Luca demonstrates a commitment to excellence and confidence that resonates through their menu.

As I looked through the offerings, certain dishes immediately grabbed my attention. The Monkfish crudo, accompanied by pickled beetroot, apple, and horseradish buttermilk, spoke to me. The subtle interplay of flavours – the mild, sweet monkfish against the crisp, tart apple and earthy beetroot, all brought together with the zing of horseradish buttermilk was culinary alchemy.

Following this, the Tagliatelle of rabbit with green olives, preserved lemon, and lardo di colonnata was served with no pompous presentation. It was just damn good pasta in a bowl that had all the flavour you would expect. Rabbit is a meat we should see more frequently, and shredded with pasta it was a delight, especially with the olives adding texture and the lemon, which was judged perfectly not to be dominant, adding not only complementary flavour but freshness.  Dressed with Parmesan and baby sage leaves it was genuinely hard to think of a more perfect pasta dish. This is the beauty of Italian food, it doesn’t have to be complicated – just well executed using prime ingredients.

Our shared Secondi was an Aged Hereford beef fillet with three-cornered leeks, morels, smoked bone marrow, and Parmesan. I am still working out what three-cornered leeks mean, but they added a subtle depth of flavour without being overpowering, their natural sweetness and slight sharpness cutting through the richness of the beef. I had thought a Secondi each would be needed to fill my rather greedy appetite, but happily sharing worked with Luca’s generous portion sizes. 

I finished the meal with a dark chocolate delice that balanced the richness of chocolate with the lightness of vanilla ice cream, accented by the crunch of hazelnuts and the sweetness of raisins. I don’t know why I always gravitate towards chocolate – it is something I need to ban myself from doing, however much I enjoy it. There are so many other desserts to enjoy. 

Reflecting on lunch as we parted ways, it was clear that Luca had provided the perfect backdrop for our reunion. The combination of remarkable food, warm company, and the intimate yet vibrant setting of the restaurant left us with memories that would linger long after the lunch had ended.