Address: Vorontsovskaya ul., 36/1
Tel: +7 (495) 676-4150
Open from 11:00 until 24:00
All major credit cards accepted.
By Neil McGowan
I went into my local apteka the other day, and before I'd even been served - the place had been converted into a new restaurant. Actually that isn't true, but if the pace of restaurant-openings continues, you'll be able to get coquilles Saint-Jacques on every street corner, but not a loaf of bread. Who on earth goes to all these places? Surely there aren't enough diners in Moscow to keep them all in business? A huge number of them fail, of course - some because they can't attract and keep a regular clientele, others because the business-plan was worked out on a calculator with a key missing, but many because the owner-originated concept was rubbish to start with. The brief longevity of Moscow eateries is rapidly approaching parity with those in NYC - "still open after two years" is something of an achievement.
Can restaurants really buck this "wo-year lifespan" trend? With this in mind we set off this week to Verona, one of Moscow's most long-standing Italian eateries, whose genial padrone Enrico Caramelli has already clocked-up ten years of putting the cuisine of his native Veneto on the plates of Muscovites. Verona's location is as modest as its prices - tucked down an otherwise featureless street that most will know only as part of the Taganskaya one-way traffic system. And here was the first surprise on a midweek summer evening when you could have swung a cat in your choice of central Moscow's finest, Verona was packed? If we'd not booked a table, the only choice would have been the summer-dining area outside - and even brooding black clouds and thunder-rumbles in the sky found the tables outside pretty full too. A special occasion? "No, it's always like this, the regular customers come all the time - Russians, Italians, people who live locally, it's that kind of place" explains the charmingly shy owner. There's another factor that can't be coincidental, though - this is some of the best-value eating in town. Many of the (huge) pizzas go for under 200Rbs, and it was clear that a lot of the clientele weren't celebrating or entertaining - they were just getting supper on the way home from work. Verona is in the great tradition of Italian local family restaurants - it's not grand or pompous, the interior won't wow your new girlfriend, and the service is far from fawning you come here per mangiare - to eat.
The retro 50's Italian music was a little loud for a conversation, so we opted to risk the rain and sit outside anyhow. A salad Caprese (209Rbs) quick followed us outside - this is a place where people arrive hungry, and although the service lacks charm, it's ruthlessly efficient. Caprese is a salad that's almost invariably served indifferently - because there's almost "nothing to it" (slices of tomatoes and mozzarella), everything depends on the freshness of the ingredients, and this was sumptuousness itself, with some tangy basil and the lightest of dressings. If the piazzas are the glory of the city of Verona, then this Verona's glory is its pizzas. Enrico Caramelli has flown the flag for traditional thin'n'crispy pizza for over a decade, and his special pizza ovens are still in splendid condition if our Pizza Margherita With Rucola (189Rbs) was anything to go by? Yes, it's exactly that - a regular margherita pizza, with some rucola thrown into the still-melting cheese as it's brought to the table. If "margherita" means "the dullest cheap pizza on the menu" to you, then this is a revelation - there's a piquancy to the tomato sauce, the cheese is luscious, and the base is eminently munchable. We shared one - and there was still heaps. At which point the sky thundered more loudly - and we fled indoors whilst there was still a free table there to migrate to. Rather nicer, in my view, than the dining room at ground level is the basement area, which has been newly fitted-out. Phone early if you want to get one of the smart large low-level seating areas (of which there are only two). Don't be deterred by an unmarked staircase and an apparently secret door to this area - step inside, and it's charming, with no Godfather-style hoodlums whatsoever! These were all taken though - so we got stuck into our main courses upstairs.
The menu at Verona runs for pages - there are three pages of fish dishes alone, and even more for the meat entrees. After much indecision my dining associate plucked the Beef Medallions (299Rbs) from the meat courses. This turned out to be a wise choice, because the enormous pizza left us needing very little in the way of main courses (and you could cheerfully have done without). The verdict was "could be a little more tender, but they're delicious anyhow". I took a Swordfish Steak - one of the pricier items on the menu at 489Rbs, but worth every last kopek. Lightly pan-fried with the tiniest suntan of gold, some lemon juice was the only accompaniment it needed.
Heading towards midnight, the place was thinning out as we looked at the desserts - you have to be fairly tolerant of the staff dragging the veranda flowerpots indoors towards closing time. I was already comfortably well-fed at this point, but the corner I nibbled (purely for reviewing purposes, you understand) of my colleagues Tiramisu (120Rbs) proved it to be the real article indeed - a good strong coffee-shot and not stingy on the liqueur content amidst the cream and sponge. I'd intended to bring the curtain down with a double espresso, and I did - but at Enrico's urging, I was tempted to an iced liqueur shot of Limoncello. I was instantly hooked, and I'm already hunting a source for this wonderful stuff, simply the lemoniest alcoholic drink you ever tasted.
It's not grand, it's not imposing. Bring your business clients here - if you want to get a reputation as a cheapskate, that is. But the food is fab, and if you look at the price on the frozen disc of cheese-topped cardboard in your supermarket, it's no wonder they're packing-out Verona to have the real thing for little more (and no washing up either). If Woody Allen lived in Moscow - he'd eat at Verona.