Leytonstone. The not so pretty drag of Leytonstone High Road is an ancient pre-Roman pathway that linked London to the sprawl of Epping Forest, its name coming from a distance marker or ‘stone’ placed by the Roman 10th Legion, the same road that runs all the way through to re-energised and Olympic ‘legacy-ed up’ Stratford.
While growing up in nearby Woodford the feeling was always that Leytonstone was a bit gauche, a bit downmarket, a bit…..scuffed around the edges. It still kind of is. Sir Alfred Hitchcock has been the brightest light associated with the area over the years. Food has never been a reason to wander the streets of Leytonstone, but with stirrings and a couple of decent openings in nearby Leyton, Wanstead and Woodford…I can sense things happening, dammit.
Then I catch wind of a place making fresh pasta. No PR in sight. Say what? Worth a look…
Shimmy down past newly renamed Turkish mangal Eastanbul (word play japes), and the walk down the High Road towards Stratford delivers a bizarre and almost comical sideshow of businesses including Kenssy Fried Chicken (Kenssy?), Euro Chicken and Pizza (eh?), Chinese & Pizza Tow (that’s not a missing ‘n’), Muscle Hut Gym (you can hear the pumping, clanking and grunting), and a plethora of nail and tanning salons, pearlers like Glamour, Beautique and Madame Chic. At 517 High Road is the site where Hitchcock was born (blue plaque plonked between the petrol station and Chicks fried chicken), the house opposite decorated strikingly with a mural of huge birds, referencing his film The Birds. Wedged between Leytonstone Dental Centre and a Lithianian pub (scary looking heavies often guarding the door), opposite Discount Tile Centre is Mora, a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ job. Insalubrious just about sums up this seedy strip. Still scuffed up, see? Call me a Woodford snob, but it ain’t pretty. Which only adds to the charm of a decent restaurant opening.
Luca Scanu and Head Chef Carlo Usai are friends who came to London from Sardinia (their fathers are cousins), with Carlo having spent ten years at Sardinian restaurant Edera in Holland Park and Luca working front of house at several spots including Barbecoa and Sonny’s Kitchen in Barnes. Mora opened in February.
It’s the homemade pasta that piqued the interest, and it’s the pasta I end up hammering on each of several visits. Maybe six. Or seven. Eight? Anyway, a lot.
PAPPARDELLE WITH WILD BOAR RAGÙ (£12) – When a first ragù forkful sends memories spinning back to one of the finest Italian restaurants of recent years (Zucca in Bermondsey, sadly closed, a place I worked in), there’s something good happening. Pappardelle clearly made by a pasta whizz, and wizardry going on with carrot, celery, onions and butter, with just a touch of tomato passata allowing the boar to shine through. Glorious.
HAKE AND RICOTTA RAVIOLI WITH PRAWNS, LEEK AND BUTTER SAUCE (£12) – Pillowy parcels of satin textured pasta, a surprisingly flavoursome scatter of prawns from fishmonger Wanstead Fish (ten minutes walk away), and a buttery sauce with plenty of zip, perfectly balanced.
VEAL RAVIOLI (£12) – More good ravioli, this time covered in a cosseting blanket of mushrooms and buttery sauce.
SPAGHETTI WITH BOTTARGA (£13) – An umami blast so strong I’m convinced they have also blitzed anchovies and added to the mix. Not so, I’m told. Air-dried mullet roe making all the umami moves. Another favourite.
LANGOUSTINE RISOTTO (£15) – Rich, bisque-like stock makes sure the bosky richness of cooked down shells is humming through every mouthful of perfectly judged rice: chef knows his risotto timings.
TAGLIOLINI CACIO E PEPE (£9) – Cacio e pepe is having a moment in London, thanks to the Pici served with this cheese and cracked black pepper sauce at Padella in Borough Market. Here, with fine homemade tagliolini, it’s a more genteel interpretation. Ask for more grated Pecorino.
TAGLIOLINI WITH BLACK TRUFFLE (£16) – ‘Truffle Menu’ is on the reverse of the menu: beef carpaccio, risotto, rib-eye with mash, all getting the truffle treatment. Generous grating of truffle on the tagliolini.
GNOCCHETTI WITH SAUSAGE MEAT AND SAFFRON RAGÙ – More ragù goodness with a healthy kick of saffron running though it, and what seems like a twang of clove in there too. Good, but the pappardelle ragù is the one that lingers in the memory and is ordered again (and again) on future visits.
The mains don’t grab me by the cojones, and so each time I dodge them: rabbit leg with mashed potato (nah, I’m alright mate); chicken breast stuffed with asparagus and speck (a bit Come Dine With Me) grilled rib-eye with roast potatoes (nope); pan fried seabream, capers tomatoes and beans (maybe, another time); baked cod with tender stem broccoli (yawn). Or do I want that fregola, the Sardinian cousin of ‘cous cous’, cooked and steeped in a rich prawn stock with courgettes and prawns? It turns out I do, and yes I will wait twenty minutes, and yes it is damn good. The off-menu carbonara that Luca casually reveals kiboshes any chance of secondi on the last visit and is duly ordered: made using only the yolk of the egg and crisped guanciale, it creates the silkiest sauce that demands chasing to the end with any focaccia to hand. The off-menu burger is dead. Long live off-menu carbonara.
Good melanzane alla parmigiana, baked aubergines with tomatoes served as a rounded puck, drizzles and blobs of pesto dotted about the plate, is prettified more than it needs to be. A great oozy Burrata speaks of great sourcing and is one of the best I’ve had for a while, while excellent homemade focaccia is worth plundering pre-pasta splurging. Only two dishes fail to charm as much as the rest, a tagliatelle with aubergines and smoked ricotta, and Sardinian culurgiones, parcels of potato and mint (both a tad underseasoned on that visit). A bite of a mate’s Sardinian pastry seadas is great, filled with a bright, gooey filling of lemon, sheep’s cheese, orange zest and honey. Tiramisu is good and unfaffed about with, no gussied up, deconstructed version going on here.
Wines are all from specialist Sardinia Wine, and gad about other regions aside from Sardinia, featuring lesser known varietals like Grignolino from Piemonte. Champagne choices say a lot about a restaurant, and the only Champagne listed is Deutz, a relatively small player in the region: a marker for the quiet class of the wine list.
Oven East opened last year a couple of doors down, a good Turkish spot with BYO and excellent Lahmacun flatbreads and pide. Panda Dim Sum Café near the Red Lion Pub, also worth a shout, has Mr Yan Feng Zhou hand pulling noodles, first encountered in Leyton at Dim Sum Café in Leyton. Nearby we now have The Woodford, Bombetta, Provender, the new Ginger Pig butcher. Leyton has welcomed worthy openings Yardarm, Marmelo Kitchen and Deeney’s – much more of this and I can toss the oyster card in the River Lea.
Having given the pasta list a good bashing, I’m now happy to be scurrying back often. It’s difficult to look past that pappardelle with wild boar ragù....a real teaser of a dish.
Dodge the nail shops, swerve the chicken joints, order pappardelle. A neighbourhood Italian that is compelling enough to make it a regular: all Roman roads in Leytonstone, now lead to Mora.
The Folkestone Wine Company
The Fordwich Arms
Where The Light Gets In
The Mash Inn
Grand Trunk Road
The Laughing Heart
German Doner Kebab
Black Axe Mangal
House of Ho
One Leicester St
Duck & Waffle
10 Greek Street
Capote Y Toros
Pollen St Social