In three words: Passionate, Charming, Authentic
The Lowdown: The Italians are known for being a passionate lot – be it love, football, or food, they throw themselves in whole-heartedly. And it is adoration for the latter subject that spurred a new bistro and winery to recently pop up in Covent Garden.
Those who are familiar with the geography of Italy will know that, in the heel of the boot, lies the Southern region of Puglia. This area is renowned for its cucinapovera – translated as ‘Peasant Cooking’ – as well as wonderful wines, and it is this fine combination that has now landed on English shores courtesy of a joint venture. The Falvo family, who own the Masseria Li Veli Winery in Puglia, have teamed up with the Melpignano family, founders of the San Domenico Hotels Group, to bring us authentic and delicious Italian flavours, all enjoyed in a relaxed and friendly environment.
Location: Just a hop skip and a jump from Seven Dials in Covent Garden, on bustling Long Acre street. So right in the hub of the action, then.
The Occasion: This makes for a great date spot – Italian food is conducive to romance, after all (hey, just look at Lady and the Tramp and the famous meatball scene if you need more proof). Li Veli is also a must stop for any wine lovers, and foodies should come with an appetite – although those not looking to eat carbs can find things to chow down on, it would be a massive shame to miss the sensational bread.
Decor: Upstairs has more of a relaxed, casual-café vibe, and is also the place to pick up a bottle of Italy’s finest vino. For a more romantic or intimate affair, then head down to the restaurant. Rustic wooden floors, pale stone walls and matching cream seats make for a cool, cavern-esque feeling (almost like being in a posh wine cellar), and when the lights are dipped the place glows. Plus there are nooks and crannies so you can feel you’ve got your privacy too.
Atmosphere: It’s no surprise this is a family-run establishment – Italian charm and hospitality envelops you as soon as you step over the threshold. The waiting staff are all lovelyand speak with a Mediterranean lilt, and will guide you through the menu thoroughly. Upstairs was more bustling when we visited, whereas down in the restaurant things were a little more sedate and intimate.
Menu Concept: The food is based on traditional Apulian cuisine, and there’s a staunch dedication to using products grown in Puglia or delivered daily from local markets. It’s obviously very important to the ethos of the owners that the ingredients can shine for themselves.
What We Ate: The whole meal at Li Veli was a bit of an adventure into this new cuisine, and we couldn’t have asked for a better gastronomical guide than Alfredo – the son of the wine-producing Falvo family who joint-own the establishment. Managing the place for a spell to make sure everything runs smoothly, he told us we couldn’t not try the ‘Frisella’ bread.A typical repast in his area, it is bread that has been baked twice and is molded into a round, bagel like shape. We ate it topped with the freshest chunks of vibrant red organic tomato, drizzled in extra virgin olive oil. The bread was lovely – it had a real satisfying crunch, was perfectly seasoned, and the juice of the tomatoes burst in our mouths. Home-made Focaccia was spongy-deliciousness specked with rosemary, and the burrata cheese…. Don’t leave here without trying it. A snowy white orb appeared, between the size of a tennis and golf ball. We cut into it, and here the only word that fits is ‘oozing’. How something can be so delicate in flavour and yet have such an incredible impact on the taste-buds astounds me.
Then it was on to the main courses, and I decided to be led by Alfredo – while secretly hoping he’d suggest pasta. Luckily, this was his recommendation, since of course it was home made orecchiette. Named because it resembles a small ear, the pieces of perfectly al-dente pasta were smothered in a ruby red tomato sauce, and pepped up with cacioricotta cheese and basil. This probably best summarised the meals at Li Veli – simple food, nourishing, healthy (it’s organic too), and just completely vibrant with flavour. When a humble pasta dish can be made to taste so incredible then you know you’re on to a winner. It’s also worth noting that my companions sea-bass with accompanying silky-smooth bean mash was a delight, and the tiramisu we finished on was rich, loaded with booze, and as good as you’d hope from a family run Italian.
Best of the Booze: Obviously here the tipples are just as important as the food, and boy were we satisfied by what we drank. The meal was started perfectly with a punchy and beautifully-bitternegroni (so hot right now), and then it was on to the wines – all from the Li Veli winery, naturally. The white we sampled was the Fiano. It was superb – fruity and yet complex, with additional layers of smokiness and definiteminerality from the coast. Then we moved onto the Passamante, which is the name of the forest of the area. This is translated in the bold, intense and cherry burst of the wine, which gave lingering hints of cinnamon and nutmeg. It was so good we went home with a bottle.
Overall: Looking up Italian proverbs about food, I think my favourite was probably Atavola non siinvecchia, which means‘At the table with good friends and family you do not become old.’ All I can say is that four hours in Li Veli flew by, because we were enveloped in warm hospitality, superb and yet rustic food, and incredible wine. It is obvious that everything about Li Veli is inspired by a love of the region it represents, and London is now a richer place for having this opportunity to indulge in this passion.