Lina Stores: A true taste of Italy in London

Lina Stores: a true taste of Italy in London

by Pete Dreyer 30 July 2018

Italian delicatessen Lina Stores has always been a home away from home for Italians in London. The shop's new restaurant delivers exactly the same comforts, and in head chef Masha Rener, London has a new star to lead the Italian food renaissance.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Pete worked as a food writer at Great British Chefs and trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine in London. Although there’s very little he won’t eat, his real passion is health and nutrition, and showing people that healthy food can be delicious too. When he’s not writing or cooking, you’ll probably find him engrossed in a bowl of pho.

‘When I first moved to London in 1999, the Italian food here was awful,’ says Masha Rener – head chef of Lina Stores' restaurant. I laugh, but she is deadly serious about the crimes committed against her national cuisine. ‘The pasta! I don't know what they used to do to the pasta, it was like it was left in water overnight! Then it would be dressed up with a bit of tinned tomato sauce and some terrible Parmesan. It was bad. Really bad.’

We can all laugh about it now of course – most of us anyway. London’s food scene has come on leaps and bounds in the last twenty years, and when Masha returned to the capital last year, she barely recognised the city and the food. ‘There’s so much more competition now,’ she says, ‘and this makes everyone better. You can find good Italian food quite easily in London now. I went to Bocca Di Lupo recently, and honestly, it was better than a lot of restaurants in Italy.’

Lina Stores has been a bastion of quality since 1944, when the eponymous Lina set up shop in Soho and started importing the best of Italian salumi, cheese, dry goods, wine and more. One suspects that the fresh pasta – made daily in the shop – is just as good as anything you’d find in Italy, and Masha is carrying on that tradition at the new restaurant, serving up pasta dishes that would feel just as at home served in the cobbled and colonnaded streets of Bologna as they do in the bustle of Soho. As for Masha herself, her upbringing in Italy’s gastronomic heartland has made her the perfect person to take on the kitchen at Lina Stores.

‘My parents used to live in Milan, but they hated the pollution, so they decided to change their lives,’ she explains. ‘They wanted to be able to grow their own vegetables and raise animals and live in the country, not just have a villa for the weekend and have a gardener that does everything for you!’ Masha’s parents roamed the country in search of their new home, and eventually came across a beautiful farm in Umbertide – a small town on the east bank of the Tiber, sitting in between Umbria and Tuscany. ‘When they moved there, they had no idea what they were doing!’ she laughs.

Masha and her sister were born shortly after, and the young family set about restoring the place, eventually opening it to the public as an agriturismo – a farm with guest rooms and restaurant – in 1985. ‘La Chiusa’ grew slowly but steadily, as did Masha, who grew up working on the farm. ‘We didn’t have any relatives there,’ she says. ‘No grandmothers and no-one to babysit, so I grew up in the kitchen with my mum. Whatever she was doing, I did too.’ Aside from a year in London in 1999 – during which time Masha befriended the owners of Lina Stores – she spent her whole life working at La Chiusa.

By the time she took over the business from her parents in 2004, the agriturismo stretched over seven hectares of land. Masha was growing organic fruit, vegetables and herbs, producing wine from her own vineyards and olive oil from her own olive groves. She planted a wheat field and milled flour to make her own bread and pasta. She kept poultry as well as rabbits and pigs, with the latter going towards her own salumi, which she would make and cure on-site. And all the while, she was cooking for twenty-five people in the restaurant every night. ‘When you get your products from a supplier, you don’t know the history of them,’ Masha explains. ‘I knew every single thing on that farm – not only do you value all of it, but you learn how to cook with everything. For example, courgettes – people use the courgette and the flowers, but no-one knows you can use the leaves too. It connects you with nature.’

Head chef Masha Rener ran a pioneering agriturismo in Umbria for many years before taking over the kitchen at Lina Stores
Lina Stores' signature pastel green is a comforting sight in the new restaurant, and the bar is a perfect spot for people watching in Soho

Idyllic as it may sound, running La Chiusa became a constant, year-round job for Masha, and last year she made the tough decision to sell it. ‘When I took over the business I was with my husband,’ she explains. ‘Two people can manage the agriturismo, but after we divorced, I managed the last eight years on my own. It was a really sad time – the agriturismo was like a son or a daughter to me. I put all of myself, all of my energy into it, but it was too much.’ More than a little heartbroken, Masha called her friends at Lina Stores to tell them the news, unaware that they were cooking up their own plan for a restaurant. ‘We had kept in touch ever since I lived in London,’ says Masha. ‘My sister lived here for eight years too, so I’d often come to London and we’d all go out together. They said, ‘maybe it’s a good time to come and do something with us?’ Slowly but surely, it all started to come together.’

After around fifteen tasting sessions and countless flights to and from London, Masha finally moved to England for good in March 2018, and strapped on her Lina Stores apron. The menu at the restaurant is very much a picture of her – the emphasis is on the quality of the produce and the respect shown to it by the kitchen. ‘Italian food is simple,’ says Masha. ‘If you start with recipes that are too complicated, with too many ingredients, it’s like you’re trying to cover something up. One day, a lady passed in front of the restaurant and looked at the menu. She said, ‘this is such a simple menu, there isn’t anything special on here,’ but the simplicity is what makes it special.’

Pappardelle con Ragù di Coniglio – Pappardelle, Rabbit Ragu, Rosemary & Taggiasca Olives
‘Nduja con Ricotta – Spicy Calabrian ‘Nduja & Buffalo Ricotta
Cannolo con Ricotta e Pistacchio – Cannolo, Ricotta & Pistachio
Tortellini con Burro e Salvia – Ricotta & Herb Tortellini, Sage & Brown Butter

The burrata dish at the top of the menu is a perfect example – silky envelopes of pasta, stuffed with creamy burrata and topped with a beautiful tomato sauce. ‘It’s the best tomato in London, the best burrata in London and the best pasta in London,’ says Masha, matter-of-factly. ‘That’s why it’s so good.’ Chewy rolls of pici alla Norcina hark back to Masha’s days on the farm – the rich, glossy sauce is made with the same cured pork sausage that Masha once made in Umbertide. ‘That’s a very Umbrian dish,’ says Masha. ‘I really love that one. We couldn’t find a good sausage in London, so we make it ourselves, the same way I made it at the agriturismo.’

There’s a buzz to Lina Stores that makes it very charming and likeable. Italian chatter fills the air from customers and staff alike, and behind the upstairs counter, Masha’s spirit shines through in every plate that comes out of the kitchen. That energy is what elevates Lina Stores above a burgeoning class of good Italian restaurants in London. ‘I don’t care about fancy cooking,’ says Masha as she drains her coffee cup. ‘Our cooking at Lina Stores is just about putting our energy into the food.’ It’s an art that takes time to nurture, but we can thank our stars for Masha Rener – her artistry is bringing a true taste of Italy to London.