The reason the details are all so familiar to me is that 46 Brewer Street used to house Topo Gigio - the restaurant I have probably visited more than any other in my life. Topo Gigio was my grandparents' favourite Italian restaurant. I visited countless times in a formative period of the mid-nineties and I have the layout and décor stamped indelibly on my mind. Topo Gigio was opened in the 1960s by a Neapolitan family as a solid, old-school Italian trattoria. The food was unremarkable, but for my grandparents it was more about feeling special, about warm welcomes and bonhomie. The walls were red brick and covered in international currency that had supposedly been donated by happily replete patrons. On the weekends when we'd visit, the dining room would be filled with perfume and laughter. This was a restaurant that existed in a different world, a charming, simpler land of childhood; you descended the stairs and went back in time.
The restaurant of my youth has now disappeared, replaced with a something sleeker, fresher and more modern. The entrance hall is brightly lit, the lighting placing focus on the extraordinary collection of Murano glass - apples and pears - that line one wall. There are racks displaying ancient bottles and a reception desk, but otherwise this area is unadorned. The stairs leading to the basement restaurant are familiar and in the same place, which is a comfort! The basement that was once dark and ornate, a cavern filled with aromas of frying garlic and cigarette smoke, is now well lit and spacious, with a copper-topped bar at one end and numerous small tables trying to fill this large, low-ceilinged room.The food initially seems to be a world away from that of Topo Gigio. The menu is a mixture of deconstructed or modernised takes on classic dishes, combined with some more challenging, gastronomic flavours. Slow cooked tripe with parmesan would not have been well received alongside the bread crumbed chicken and lamb cutlets of yesteryear.
There is a selection of small dishes to enjoy with a number of different vermouth-based cocktails. The small plates are superb: deep fried fat olives stuffed with spicy meat are delicious, as is a plate of beautifully marbled coppa - some of the best I have tasted. Spaghetti carbonara, a dish that is usually little more than a stodgy student dish, is elevated to something very special and rare; lots of fresh egg yolk and crisp pancetta create a rich, gentle and calming dish. Tagliatelle with a slow-cooked, meltingly soft ox cheek ragu is similarly comforting and wintry. Main courses are a little mixed - a dish of rabbit with black olives and carrots is full of flavour and smart in the presentation, but suffers from the dryness that rabbit is so often afflicted with. Lamb with artichoke is better, very simple but tasty and fairly-priced.
Puddings here are a high point. The owners have focused on ice cream and the results are startlingly good - the pistachio is rich, sweet, but with an authentic, nutty, vegetal character. The house zabaglione is not as stand-out as the ice-creams, but packs a frothy, boozy kick. I finish the meal sipping Amaro and letting memory take me back.
Mele e Pere is a little confusing as a restaurant, as it's difficult to assess what the focus is. The restaurant has opened at a time when Soho is saturated with very specific modern Italian restaurants that focus on a particular area or emulate a style or vibe. Mele e Pere does not really fit into this format. You might suppose it does at first, due to its hip design, copper bar etc., but on closer analysis the restaurant is more akin to the trattorias of old; there is a sense that what it offers is an accessible, inoffensive appeal and old-school charm. There is some great food on offer, but the management need to work on consistency of both dishes and service. This is a big restaurant and it will take time and effort to keep the tables full. The management have taken on an ambitious task and I hope their risks pay off.