Although the Angel end of Upper Street may be lined with chains – the Islington food scene is still thriving with restaurants and cafés to suit all tastes, cuisines, and budgets. But the borough, which includes Highbury and Arsenal, is a particularly good place for Italian food. From pre-dinner theatre deals to neighbourhood trattorias, visit these places for plentiful pasta, piles of parmesan, and bowls of delicious comfort food.
This Italian café has been around since 1959, and is something of an institution on Chapel Market, tucked behind the Upper Street bustle. In the morning, it serves up massive breakfasts, but visit at lunchtime for pasta, risotto, and chicken parmigiana if you can find a space at one of the communal tables. It’s a great option for a low-key lunch, and closes at 3pm, there’s a couple of outside tables if you fancy people watching with a cup of coffee.
Family run pizza joint Saponaro has been in the area since 1989. Hailing from rural Southern Italy The Saponaro brothers bring classic Italian flavours to Islington, with stone-baked pizzas including veggie Leggera topped with tomato, mozzarella and ricotta and shaved parmesan the Quatro Stagioni topped with mushrooms, prosciutto, salami and artichokes. They also serve up daily pasta specials from £9.99 including tortellini, gnocchi and lasagna and there’s plenty of sides for sharing too.
Sitting on the chic Almeida Street, across from the theatre Radici is one one of the newer Italian restaurants in the area. Run by Chef Francesco Mazzei whose other restaurants include Sartoria and Fiume. Given its location, it’s no surprise that Radici is known for its pre (or post) theatre dinners. The restaurant serves up food from Chef Mazzei’s home region of Mezzogiorno in Southern Italy, and the theatre menu option is a great value two courses for £20.00 or three courses for £23.00 mains include tagliolini cacio e pepe, as well as vegan dishes such as asparagus and orecchiette.
Radici has outside tables for summer nights, although calling the tucked back part of the pavement a terrace is a bit of a stretch. Terrace or not, it’s replete with shade, foliage and most importantly, great food.
La Vita é Bella
Meaning Life is Beautiful (and sharing its name with the Roberto Benigni film), La Vita é Bella on Theberton has airy interiors and plates of comfort food. It’s probably not going to be great for vegans, but veggies who eat dairy will find plenty to feast on from classics like penne arrabiata and wild mushroom risotto as well as gnocchi with pesto. The A La Carte is great value with mains from £8.00–£20.00. If you’re a meat eater, we recommend the chargrilled fillet steak with rosemary potatoes and sautéed spinach and either peppercorn, gorgonzola or mushroom sauce for £29.99. There’s plenty of Italian wine on the menu too, naturally.
Cafe La Divina
You’ll probably be intrigued by the decor before you walk in the door at Cafe La Divina. With a bright green exterior and an interior that includes a massive model car hanging off the wall – it’s a sensory experience before you’ve even clocked the menu.
But, whimsical decor aside, family-run Cafe La Divina has a reputation for a relaxed atmosphere, and good value pizza, pasta, grill and seafood dishes. Like Radici, it also serves up a pre-theatre dinner set menu of £18.95 per person (min two people) on Sundays-Thursdays and the price includes two courses and a drink (beer, house wine of a soft drink), and the lunchtime menu is a also great value with three courses for £12.95 including mains like rigatoni norma (aubergine pasta), carbonara and seafood penne.
Local favourite Mangia Bene serves up traditional Italian food in a relaxed atmosphere with all food prepared in an open kitchen. The menu includes pizzas, calzones, soups, batches of Italian bread and a whole lot of pasta including fettuccine nduja, spaghetti alla carbonara, and lasagne al forno, as well as meat and fish mains. Again, it’s better for vegetarians than vegans, but the prices are good and the service is friendly.
One of the newest additions to the Islington restaurant scene, Noci has hip, ultra modern interior and London food blog hype to draw in hungry punters. More importantly, the menu is enticing and reasonably priced. Run by chef Louis Korovilas (formerly of Locanda Locatelli and Banone) , the focus here is on pasta and Sicilian snacks. You can choose from three menus, the set lunch is a drink, focaccia and pasta for £12.00, and pastas on the main menu ranges from £8.00 to £16.50 for dishes including brown butter cacio e pepe ziti and Sicilian red prawn and sundried tomato tagliatelle.
The big communal tables are great for groups to share plates and sip seasonal spritz, especially on summer nights. You can take advantage of of the 5 and 5 menu – a happy hour selections of cocktails and small plates for a fiver each including saffron and nduja arancini, pecorino and parmesan mussel and squid fritti, and taleggio and gorgonzola torta fritta.