Cheap (ish) Cambridge Circus cuisine
Marketing is a magical thing. It can transform the mundane into something much more wondrous and exotic. Vico, an Italian restaurant that has taken over what used to be the Pizza Hut on the corner of Cambridge Circus and Charing Cross Road, is basically a fast food joint. Or a canteen or cafeteria if you will. You choose your pre-prepared dishes from the counter, pay at the till and perch on a stool while wolfing it all down and watching the world go by.
But in the hands of the marketers, the ‘Italian street food’ will transport you to an ‘Italian piazza’ where ‘cutlery is frowned upon’. You can even sit on faux stone ‘steps’ jutting out of the walls (it’s a piazza, remember). There’s nothing wrong with a canteen, a cafeteria or fast food, but falling for waffley mumbo jumbo marketing and PR speak is a sure fire way to cloud your judgement.
Vico is the cheaper offshoot of Soho stalwart Bocca di Lupo, but whereas that restaurant serves up a variety of relatively intricate plated dishes from across Italy’s regions, Vico’s fare is far less elaborate – a selection of arancini, polpette, skewered seafood or meat, pizza, pies, frittatas and salads that change daily and are sold in 100g portions. Dessert is provided by a separate Gelupo-branded counter, the gelato and affogato off-shoot of Bocca di Lupo.
What you get and exactly how much it costs can be opaque. There’s no real menu, either in store or online (unless you count the occasional Tweet about an individual dish), so you have to crowd round the counter and shuffle along trying to decide what you want without getting in everyone else’s way. Food is charged at £3 per 100g (or £30 per kilogram to put it another way), but it’s hard to control how much you spend unless you can eyeball how much things weigh. Including a soft drink, it’s possible to spend anywhere from £10 to £25 a meal depending on how hungry you are. Gelato is charged for separately and more conventionally (by size of cone or tub) and, in a clever wheeze, is half price when it’s raining.
A quick word: I don’t usually review restaurants during their soft opening phase as I don’t think it’s fair to critique a business when they’ve publicly stated it’s still their settling-in phase. But soft openings are usually a testing period to allow the service staff to bed in – except in Vico’s case there basically are no service staff (it’s fast food/a cafeteria, remember). Plus, a few late nights at the day job left me wanting a quick and easy meal and Vico was the obvious option. I therefore paid 50% less than usual, but all prices mentioned in this review are the full, regular prices. Make of that what you will.
First things first
Vico’s weight-based pricing and ordering process sounds unnecessarily convoluted, but in practice it’s not too much of a faff. Anything deep-fried tends to be pretty good. An assortment of meaty fritolio misto was crisp and free from excess oil on the outside. The dense and earthy battered tongue and brisket were my favourites.
While the crisp exterior of the lamb polpette was technically flawless, the bitty meat inside was so hard to identify that I’d probably have to check the dental records just to be sure it wasn’t actually badger. Despite this meaty anonymity, its measured zestiness made it a pleasing morsel.
Many have already raved about the lasagna arancini to the point of dry heaving and the novelty of a little portion of lasagna inside a deep-fried batter ball is indeed quirky and fun. But at the end of the day the filling is merely lasagna – lightly creamy with umami tomato sauce and some supple pasta sheet pieces – albeit a good one.
The meat in the rabbit salad was far too soft and chicken-like, but the fluffy couscous-like bed of carbs was pleasing. The limp parmesan let the side down, but the lightly zesty and currant-esque dressing pepped things up. It was very much a salad of two-halves, so it’s a real shame that one half was rubbish.
The rectangular-shaped slices of pizza resemble the Roman variety, but Vico’s versions weren’t quite as accomplished. The headlining prosciutto was merely okay, outclassed by the sharp and sweet tomatoes and the creamy, musky and elastic mozzarella. The base was the most disappointing part – although reasonably light and airy, it’s not a patch on the best Neapolitan or Roman examples.
Going back for seconds
Of course, one of the potential problems with a canteen is that the pre-prepared food can sit around for a while and that can impact the quality of the food. The porcini pizza had clearly gone unloved. My slice barely tasted of the usually distinctive mushrooms, while the tough and chewy base was the stuff of rain drenched night bus takeaways.
If you’re of the middle class way, then you’ll know what the little grains in the mussel couscous are like. The mussels themselves weren’t too bad and exceeded the supermarket chiller cabinet standard, but were hardly exemplars of mollusc-kind. A shot of reasonably decent balsamic vinegar and parmesan helped liven them up, but this humdrum salad is not the dish to win over salad dodgers, couscous critics or seafood sceptics.
Salvation once again lay in the deep-fried goods. The battered salt cod was light, crisp and not too oily on the outside. The dense, meaty, slightly chewy cod was, in my book, far more enjoyable than most fresh cods that end up coated in batter. The buttery, salty courgette slices shouldn’t be overlooked and were just as good.
I expected little of the beetroot arancini, but the odd filling was just as good as the crisp, oil-free breadcrumb coating. Although the deep purple stuff was sweet rather than earthy, it was still enjoyably dense and hearty. Plus, there was still some earthiness which came from a milky core of soft goat’s cheese (not pictured).
Three’s a crowd
Frittatas are sometimes available at Vico. The fennel frittata was more like a quiche than an omelette though, with more fennel than egg which was a welcome surprise. I’m never going to complain about having big chunks and slices of mildly bitter fennel to chow down on.
You don’t see cheese-less pizzas that often, if only because it would lay bare any deficiencies in your tomato paste. That wasn’t a problem here as the tomato puree was sharp and umami, but there wasn’t much in the way of anchovies on my slice and the ones that were present were very muted. At least the base was crisper, lighter and fluffier than before, although it’s still some way behind the best Roman and Neapolitan pizzas.
A single skewer of octopus and potato may look small, but it punches above its 100g weight. The tender tentacle segments had a firm bite and a pleasing herby sheen. The potato chunks managed to mirror the octopus both in texture and taste.
May the Fourth be with you
Although the hazelnut and pumpkin polpette tasted more of the former than the latter, that distinctive nuttiness and the crisp, oil-free shell meant this fried little ball was still a success. The least successful of all the fried balls I tried at Vico was the olive arancini. Although the fried shell was as good as ever, the mild saltiness and anonymous mince failed to leave much of an impression.
Vico sometimes has seafood specials which are fried to order, rather than pre-fried and left to stand on some greaseproof paper. The selection of cod, whitebait, prawns and squid that I had arrived a tad too oily, but not disastrously so. The lightly flaky cod was meaty and cooked just so, but the other fruits of the sea tasted less like themselves and were more evocative of the sea in general. Although that sort of muted, neutered ineffectiveness usually earns my disapproval, the sea salt zing was aromatic enough to make this impressionistic dish enjoyable despite its ultimate lack of substance.
Pumpkin is an odd choice for a pizza topping, especially when it was sweet enough to qualify as a dessert and overpower the tame cured jowl it was paired with. At least the base was relatively fluffy and crisp.
Taking the Fifth
Tiellas are the closest Italian equivalent to a pie that I’ve seen and the version at Vico has a thin, subtle crust the blends into the background. Although advertised as a tuna tiella, the fish component of the filling was meagre in my serving and drowned out by sharp, sweet tomatoes and salty black olives. Even so, it’s satisfying enough that I could have another slice quite happily.
Fish was once again in short supply in the salt cod and potato salad. There was just one piece of cod in my serving, but it was at least dense and lightly chewy. The tender potatoes were zesty and lightly herby which would help counterbalance the relative heaviness of the cod if there was anything more than a single chunk.
I’m not a huge fan of goat’s cheese, either by itself or on a pizza. It did little to justify its presence here, but at least this surprising blandness let the lightly bitter broccoli and sweet peppers take centre stage. Although the crust was a tad too bready for my liking, it was still reasonably crispy and fluffy too.
The same so-so base turned up again as the basis of the cheese-less prosciutto pizza. Although the tomatoes were sharp and sweet, the surprisingly bland rocket and chewy, generically salty and dried-out prosciutto were major letdowns.
Sixth Salvo (it’s nearly over I swear)
Even with the muted ingredients used here and the somewhat soggy bread, mozzarella and anchovies on bruschetta are a winning combination. Lightly elastic cheese and modestly salty little fishies make for superb comfort food. Pair some truly milky, creamy mozzarella and properly punchy anchovies and serve it all on some crisp bruschetta worth the name and you’d have a real winner.
Spelt formed the basis of a trout salad and its light wheaty fluffiness was reminiscent of cous cous or quinoa. It faded into the background, so it didn’t get in the way of appreciating the earthy trout and buttery courgettes.
The small artichokes were reasonably fleshy and bitter. I was less enamoured with the chickpea, aubergine and tomato salad. Although the tomatoes were as good as ever, the muted chickpeas and only mildly fleshy and smoky aubergines made this dish seem like something cobbled together from second-rate, unwanted leftovers.
Gelupo at Vico
Roman gelato has ruined all other ice creams for me and Gelupo is one of the few London-based gelato purveyors that comes close to replicating the magic of the very best Italian originals. Oversimplifying somewhat, gelato has less fat and less air introduced during the manufacturing process compared to most ice creams and is usually stored at a somewhat higher temperature too. The result is that the very best gelato (gelati?) have a wonderfully soft, elastic texture and powerfully punchy flavours.
Gelupo maintains a surprisingly consistent level of pleasing elasticity across its various gelato flavours, plus an accomplished level of creaminess and pleasing lack of crunchy ice crystals. The unmistakable pistachio and coconut flavours really hit the spot, with the pistachio a persistent highlight – a subtle but wonderfully enjoyable nutty edge manages to convey and evoke the crunch of shell and the peeling of tight nut skin.
The hazelnut and fig leaf varieties were too muted. The more experimental flavours tend to flunk rather than soar, with the chocolate-based bitterness and cherry-derived sourness of the black forest gateaux flavour proving a little too astringent for even my liking. The ricotta choco pepper was quite similar, but more muted in taste to the point of being a bit dull. The raspberry ripple barely registered on my tongue.
There was little difference between the ‘Snickers’ and Bacio gelatos (Bacio is a fairly widespread chocolate and hazelnut Italian confection) – mildly, unimpressively chocolatey and nutty concoctions. There wasn’t even any of the cheap, tacky caramel that usually defines Snickers in its usual ice cream form. Both were remarkably ineffectual and forgettable. You’re better off sticking with the ‘plain’ ol’ bitter chocolate gelato. Its pleasing bittersweet taste had a naturally nutty edge that was more than sufficient on its own.
The vanilla saffron gelato was more about the saffron then the vanilla. Although missing the distinctive aroma of the spice, the colour and taste of the saffron were both still present and gave this gelato a mild South Asian character. This gelato may have only have been a partial hit, but the Crema 101 was a straight up dazzler from the first spoonful to the last. Like the very similar RCH, it had a rich, intense creaminess yet with a clean aftertaste and possibly even a little more elasticity than usual.
The fruity sorbets should not be ignored – refreshingly cold without being too bracingly icy. The blood orange and apricot flavours were very true to their respective fruits with bold, distinctive tastes that only showed up the faded lifelessness of the sour cherry. The peach tasted more like melon laced with a hit of bubblegum which was odd, but still enjoyable enough.
The gelato from Gelupo remains among the best you’ll find in London. The savoury cooking from Vico itself is much more variable. You’re almost guaranteed a good time with anything that’s deep-fried or skewered, but you’ll need to bulk up on the salads to get the most out of them and avoid feeling short-changed, while the pizzas, while mostly okay-ish, ultimately weren’t a patch on the ones from dedicated, higher quality pizzerias such as Pizza Pilgrims.
The thing with Vico is that unless you’re only having a small snack, the cost quickly adds up which will leave some wondering why they aren’t also getting more comfortable seating and proper table service too. Vico serves up what’s supposed to be simple and unfussy street food, but with the high overheads of a prime location. This leads to compromises in quality control, both front and back of house, which makes for a somewhat disjointed experience where the quality of the food, the pricing, the service model and the atmosphere just don’t quite come together. This is a systemic flaw that no marketing PR waffle speak can completely paper over.
Vico is therefore best seen as a quick pitstop, such as before or after a night out, where you can line your stomach reasonably well in a short space of time. Its casualness and the visual nature of ordering also make it a good bet for tourists, who might otherwise get trapped in far inferior soul-sucking money traps. These might not be the glamorous social scenarios Vico’s planners had in mind, but they’re essential to the lifeblood of any major city.
What to order: Arancini; polpette; skewers; gelato; specials
What to skip: Pizza
Address: One Cambridge Circus, Seven Dials, London WC2H 8PA
Phone: 0207 379 0303
Opening Hours: seven days a week 11.00–midnight.
Reservations: not taken
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £10-25 approx. (highly variable)