From the outside, The Stafford Collection’s standalone Sicilian restaurant Norma looks quite unassuming. The Charlotte Street entrance is reminiscent of a cute little café, where one might find the interior a little cramped and be jostling elbows with neighbouring diners. True, you might have to sidle past one another at the entrance, but once inside the space is used to great effect. The ground floor area in the restaurant opens into a space lit with natural light from above like a riad in Marrakech, while the first floor has a darker, more wood panelled, style of décor. The second floor. Moorish patterns and Italian chic combine to capture the unique heritage of Sicily, a heritage which is also expressed in the menu at Norma, under the direction of Executive Chef Ben Tish.
Surrounded by a curved wall and having had to shuffle around the table to get into our seats, there was no question that our table for a good gossip with your best friend, or a romantic date – perhaps not a blind date, it’s pretty intimate! Our orders were taken by Liz, who was at once bubbly, charming and efficient – a true asset to the establishment. She coaxed us into a bottle of sleek lunchtime wine, a Feudi di San Gregorio Cutizzi Greco di Tufo 2019 and we were both impressed. Light green fruit flavours were perfectly balanced with high acidity, perfect for the robust flavours of our chosen food.
Having been at The Stafford recently, we came prepared with some recommendations for the dishes that we absolutely must try at Norma. These included a number of the small plates, ideal for sharing, and pasta for the main course. We began with the spaghettini fritters, the epitome of comfort food, which consisted of fried nests of spaghetti, liberally sprinkled with parmesan, served with a parmesan cream dipping sauce. These little nuggets have just the right level of chewiness and a salty kick that even the most tired and emotional diner would find reassuring. Italy’s rising star, the spicy spreadable n’duja sausage was the topping for a neat little group of crostini, my personal favourite of our starters, which were also smothered in honey and provided an explosion of salty, hot, sweet deliciousness. We also tried a courgette flower, deep fried and filled with Cornish crab and chilli, served with saffron aioli, which was a delicate contrast to the richness of the other plates.
Our main course was two substantial pasta dishes, which at Norma are served Italian-style, in large dishes to the whole table so one could help oneself. One dish was ziti lunghi with rose veal ragu with coriander, smothered in pecorino. Of course, the pasta was perfectly cooked, but that isn’t sufficient to explain how the pasta’s texture had the perfect give (I could say al dente, but even that seems too easy) and the shape of the pasta created the perfect nest for the rich ragu sauce. I’m aware I said perfect three times in that sentence – I’ll defend my editorial choices by inviting any critic to share a plate of this with me and not feel the same way about it. The other dish, similarly delicious, was strozzapreti with fresh peas, guanciale and butter. The silkiness of the sauce, the sweetness of the peas and the saltiness of the crisped up guanciale combined to coat the pasta in a devilishly unctuous glaze. Both plates of pasta were quickly devoured and both diners sat in their little alcove, replete and grinning.
Inevitably, after some more wine, some conversation and a moment to consider, the dessert menu proved too tempting and we ordered a tiramisu and a cannoli with sweet ricotta and candied fruit. The tiramisu looked enormous when it arrived, but I did manage to consume most of it, thanks to how wonderfully light it was – it is after all, a pick me up! The cannoli pastry was crisp and crumbly, holding in and then holding onto the thick ricotta dotted with candied fruit. Both sweet desserts were well complimented by our digestif of choice, a sweet wine from the island of Pantelleria between Sicily and Africa, where some Muscat grapes (locally known as Zibbibo) are dried to increase the sugars before the wine is made, similar to the appassimento process of making amarone in Valpolicella.
Our palates sufficiently placated with a sweet end to the meal, we said our goodbyes to Liz and tried to get on with our afternoon, leaving a not insignificant part of our hearts behind at Norma. If you have never tried Sicilian fare, if you are looking for an excellent meal in an intimate space, or you’re just happy to take my word for it that you should, try and visit Norma as soon as possible. You won’t regret it.
8 Charlotte Street
London W1T 2LS