Outside the UK, Vapiano is something of an institution. An Italian restaurant founded in Germany, it has over 100 branches scattered across the US, Europe, the Middle East and Asia, but here they have just two – both in London. The Great Portland Street branch is brilliantly located if you want to refuel after a hard day’s shopping on Oxford Street, but it’s usually heaving as a result. The other, tucked away on Southwark Street behind the Tate Modern, is rather more of a hidden gem, and it’s this branch that’s the subject of our restaurant review. It’s a huge, high-ceilinged space with warm lighting and a relaxed yet stylish décor, all natural wood and marble furnishings, red leather banquettes and giant black and white photographs adorning the walls. The larger tables at the front of the restaurant are perfect for groups, or if you don’t mind communal eating, while there are smaller tables clustered at the back which provide a more intimate setting.
The Vapiano concept is simple: each diner is given a card on arrival, which is scanned each time they order something. Separate counters offer pizzas, pastas and salads, all made fresh to order. For a pizza / pasta joint, Vapiano has an impressively broad menu, offering 18 different pizzas and 22 pasta dishes, plus regularly changing specials. What’s more, when you go for the pasta you don’t just choose your sauce – you also get to pick your base, from a choice of 11 (yes, 11) different pastas. Drinks are served at your table or available from the bar, which also serves dessert. At the end of the meal, each diner takes his card to the tills at the door to settle up. This is an excellent way to avoid having to get out the calculator at the end of a big group meal, and makes it easy to transition from high table to comfortable couch if you want to relax with a coffee or digestif at the end of your meal, without the need to transfer your bill.
I’ve tried Vapiano’s pizzas before and loved their thin, crisp bases and generous toppings, but on this visit my dining partner and I both opted for pasta. I really enjoy the experience of ordering pasta here – it allows the fussy diner to request a bit more salt here, or less garlic there, and seeing the ingredients sizzle and steam and come together as the dish is prepared right in front of you does have a kind of magic to it. My dining partner ordered from the regular menu and really relished her dish – a brimming bowl of Papardelle Salvia, with crumbly feta, rich semidried tomatoes, a drizzle of olive oil and finished with a touch of sage. I just couldn’t resist the special of the moment, Campanelle Pollo Nell’Orto. This was an unusual and wonderfully wild blend of chicken, mushrooms, courgette, white onion, pine nuts, hot chilli and sage in a white wine sauce. The chicken was tender and succulent, the nuttiness of the mushrooms brought to the fore by the foresty aroma of the sage, while the tang of the onion and the heat of the chilli cut through the richness of the wine to keep the dish fresh and light. The pasta was cooked to a perfect al dente and the sauce clung to its delicate curls so that every mouthful was a riot of flavour. My only quibble with this dish was that I would have preferred the sage finely chopped rather than loosely torn, as the warm, woody flavour was a little overwhelming when I got a bite of one of the larger pieces.
The pasta portions are generous enough that you don’t really need a dessert, but Vapiano cleverly offers mini versions of the Italian classics, designed to tempt you even as you protest that you’re too full. My dining partner and I both succumbed – she opted for the mini Panna Cotta which was sumptuously smooth with rich vanilla flavours and a sweet strawberry topping, while I chose the Crema di Mascarpone con Mele e Noci. This was a wonderfully creamy mascarpone yoghurt served atop a base of soft stewed apples delicately flavoured with cinnamon and white wine, and topped with a delightfully crunchy honey and walnut brittle. With its intense sweetness and contrasting textures, this dessert was deliciously decadent despite its diminutive size. But since it was so small, I also managed to fit in a bite-sized almond macaroon from the pasticceria – this melt in the mouth miniature was a piece of biscuit heaven, with a light crust and a slightly grainy texture that tantalised the tastebuds and really left me wanting more.
Vapiano’s wine list is predominantly Italian, offering a decent range of reasonably priced whites and reds, plus a couple of rosés, and I’m impressed that all of them are available by the glass as well as the bottle. My dining partner and I shared a bottle of Ancora Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (£14.50) – with an enticingly deep ruby hue, it was a soft, fruity, easy drinking wine with soft tannins but good acidity and we had no trouble polishing off the bottle between us. Because of its counter concept, there’s not much in the way of waiter service for me to comment on, but all the staff we interacted with were professional and friendly – the pasta chefs were efficient and keen to ensure that our dishes were prepared to our liking, while the cashiers chatted to us as we paid and seemed genuinely interested in whether we’d enjoyed our experience. A meal here is pretty good value too, with two courses and wine coming in at about £20 per head. It may feel slightly canteen-esque, but for well-executed, fresh Italian food in a casual setting, you’ll struggle to beat Vapiano. According to industry news sources, they have plans for significant expansion in the UK, and this one chain that Forks-Up wouldn’t mind seeing more of. Vapiano comes highly recommended with four and a half forks-up.Vapiano 90B Southwark Street London SE1 0FD T: 020 7593 2010