The Arabs ruled Sicily for two-and-a-half centuries, introducing everything from orange trees to arancini, and the Moorish culinary influence remains strong in the island's culture and architecture. It is evocatively brought to life at Norma with Moorish-style tiling, arched romantic seating areas and a wholly enticing menu peppered with oranges, saffron, dates and figs – which are used to delicious and sometimes unexpected effect.
It is tempting to order far too much: everything on the menu sounds seductive and characterful. The choices are divided into snacks, raw from the crudo bar at the front of the restaurant, antipasti, pasta, fish and grill mains making it dangerously easy to want something or two from each section. Among the snacks, panelle, golden chickpea fritters, that may well become one of the must-eats of 2020, served with a herby green salsa, make a great appetite whetter as do extraordinary oak-smoked anchovies with a garlic and parsley salmoriglio. Red prawns, another modish ingredient with distinctive sweet, juicy flesh, come simply with rosemary and orange, and it is de rigueur to suck the heads for every last joyous drip.
Figs, perhaps subconsciously, are a recurring theme of the menu and a favourite ingredient of Ben Tish. You'll find them first among the antipasti in a gloriously colourful, quintessential winter salad with sweet pumpkin, gently sour, crisp, red chicory, creamy decadent burrata and fig vinegar: a stunning composition. If on a strict budget or time frame, skip straight to pasta: house-made strozzapreti, a kind of chunky twirl with a pleasingly aromatic and creamy pork, orange and rosemary sauce is wonderfully comforting and deeply, intensely flavourful.
The vibrant colours alone make the fish and shellfish stew with fennel seed, star anise and saffron the stand-out dish. Redolent with vine-perfumed Sicilian tomatoes, a generous mix of king prawns, baby squid and cod, and finished with roast fennel seeds, it is spectacularly moreish served in correct Sicilian fashion with fluffy couscous. Even on a wintry, dark lunchtime, it’s easy to feel transported to the wild, baroque charm of Sicilian capital Palermo.
The Sicilians adore dessert, especially pastries and ice cream. Cannoli made in-house are beautifully fresh and generously stuffed with ricotta, a world away from those dusty specimens found in too many delis. There’s brioche with salted caramel, too, and pear stuffed with goat’s ice cream, drizzled with honey., The nostalgic lure of a sundae is irresistible: an inspired mix of chestnut honey ice cream, ricotta, and, yes, more fig.
Norma has an unusual cocktail list served in its glamorous first-floor cocktail bar with drinks named after significant happenings in Sicily's complicated history. The Saracen blends vodka, gorgeous Bergamot based Italicus, mandarin liqueur, prosecco and mulberry sorbet and Palermo Renaissance is an original mix of Mediterranean gin, housemade limoncello, fig marmelade, spiced Dubonnet. The Sicilian wines drink very well reflecting their sunny, volcanic terroir. To accompany dessert, there's the enticing option of a tasting flight of Marsala, sweet fortified wines. The private dining room on the third floor where guests can order family-style Norma sharing plates with its art deco inspiration feels cosy and intimate.
And why Norma? The restaurant takes its name from Pasta alla Norma, a classic Sicilian dish of aubergines, tomato and ricotta, which appears on the menu. The dish itself is named for the opera by Bellini, who was born in Catania, a city on the Sicilian coast.
|What||Norma restaurant, Fitzrovia review|
|Where||Norma, 8 Charlotte Street, , Fitzrovia , W1T 2LS | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Tottenham Court Road (underground)|
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|