When I explain to people that one of my favourite places to eat is in pre-fabricated pod in windy car park off brick lane – they raise an eyebrow. When I protest that it’s actually very atmospheric and serves surprisingly good Italian food that wont break the bank, they smile the faintly bemused half-smile of someone soothing a deranged relative.
But actually that suits me fine because Al Volo is my little secret. Well, mine and the secret of copious East End dwelling Italians by the sound of the buzz in there at Aperitivo time on a Friday night.
You’ll find Al Volo at Ely’s Yard off Hanbury Street. Ely’s Yard is essentially a car park which, aside from cars, contains the ubiquitous sample sales, a vegetarian cafe housed in an old Routemaster Bus (The Rootmaster – geddit…), a street-art-automotive-installation (or ‘graffiti’d cars’ to you and I) and a trendy bar hidden behind a anonymous door in a brick wall.
So far, soooo Shoreditch. But in one corner is the half-tarpaulin’d pod containing Al Volo which has morphed from city takeaway into a great little bar and restaurant over the last 10 years. Al Volo now serves contemporary Italian food (plus a few classics) to the ad-agency-workers, brogue-wearing-hipsters and hoards of in-the-know-Italians who flock hungrily to Brick Lane.
It looks a million miles away from the candles-in-wine-bottles-and-plastic-grapes cod-Italian restaurants of my youth (although I do admit a certain nostalgic fondness for that sort of place…I think it might be the breadsticks). In fact it has a slightly Scandi-look about it – half the restaurant is all blonde wood laser-cut room dividers and clean lines and the other half is in a sort of cabriolet caravan structure that can be folded back when the sun shines. But the food is a great mix of unfamiliar and classic Italian dishes. I love the proper, old-school ripe, cool melon in the summer and sticky, fresh figs in the winter with sweet prosciutto ham or chunky nuggets of aged salty parmesan with focaccia and salami. They have a small selection of fantastic pizzas with blistered, charred crispy dough topped with cheeses like fontina, gorgonzola and, of course, mozzarella. There are generous bottles of homemade chilli oil on the tables to add heat where needed. The pasta is hand-made on the premises and is served with interesting and unfamiliar sauces – I’ve had a great dish of tagliatelle with chili, ricotta and almonds and I’m desperate to try the saffron and sausage pasta. There are also the familiar lasagnes and bologneses plus a selection of fish and meat which sound great if I could only tear myself away from the pizza….
But for me it’s all about the Spritz. Surprisingly difficult to find in London, the Aperol Spritz is a delicious, celebratory aperitif of Aperol, Prosecco and Soda – served at Al Volo with a little plate of Aperitivo to share. God, I love Aperitivo, it’s such a civilized concept – having a little drink and a nibble in the dying days of watery, wintery sunshine before the real business of dinner gets underway. We’ve had some great little arancinis, meaty stuffed olives, spicy chili bruschetta, chunks of mortadella, various cheeses and sweet datteri tomatoes – there’s always three or four interesting nibbles to pick at while you watch the kids in Bretons and Barbours photographing burnt-out cars for their Foundation Art project.
Give it a go, it’s as much fun as you can have in an east end car park.