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Sorella: Robin Gill and Dean Parker’s ode to Italy

Sorella: Robin Gill and Dean Parker’s ode to Italy

by Tom Shingler 12 April 2018

When Robin Gill and head chef Dean Parker decided to close their restaurant The Manor and reopen it as Sorella, it came as a bit of a shock. But their unique take on Italian cuisine, made using produce from their own farm and showcasing their love of baking, preserving and curing, has proved even more popular. Tom Shingler finds out more.

It’s safe to say that Clapham’s food scene would be a lot less interesting if it wasn’t for Robin Gill. After opening his first restaurant The Dairy to critical acclaim, he opened The Manor around the corner and Counter Culture next door. All championed a modern British style of cooking with a focus on ferments, preserving and curing, and quickly became some of the most popular restaurants in London.

So when Robin announced The Manor would be closing at the end of 2017 to become Sorella, an Italian restaurant inspired by the cuisine of Campania and the Amalfi Coast, there were questions. Why, when The Manor was doing so well? What would Robin’s very talented head chef Dean Parker have to say about it? And how would their distinctive style of cooking translate to a completely different type of cuisine?

If you’ve been reading the reviews of Sorella since it opened in January 2018, you’ll know that there was no need to worry. It’s been raved about – perhaps even more than The Manor in its heyday – and has provided Clapham with a fantastic Italian restaurant (which it was sorely lacking). Dean is manning the pass and creating fantastic plates of food night after night, and there’s still that love for preserving at its core. And the reason for the change? It all goes back to Robin’s time at Don Alfonso 1890, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant on the Amalfi Coast that he worked at back in 2002.

‘I’d always wanted to open an Italian restaurant ever since my time in Italy,’ he tells me. ‘We were originally looking at a site in Covent Garden and had a concept, menus and everything ready to go but then Brexit happened and we got really nervous. A year passed and we still really wanted to do it, so we decided that after three fantastic years it was time to close The Manor – which was perhaps a little too similar to The Dairy – and open Sorella.’

Robin and Dean had always worked very closely together and it was clear from the beginning that Sorella would be Dean’s restaurant once The Manor had closed. But to get Dean to fall in love with Italian cooking in the same way Robin did, a trip to Italy was in order. So they hopped on a plane and spent a few weeks working on the Amalfi Coast. ‘It was amazing,’ says Dean. ‘The trattoria I worked in was right on the coast and every day this Italian granny would pick stuff from her garden and bring it into the restaurant. I was fully convinced that Sorella was the way forward.’

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Sorella's head chef Dean Parker is able to indulge his love for preserving by making his own charcuterie, fermenting vegetables and even working his homemade miso into the house bread
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The menu includes a variety of antipasti and cicchetti (snacks), which is where the charcuterie and pickles take centre stage

A focus on Italian cooking might make you think there’s little opportunity to create the ferments that formed a large part of The Manor’s menu. But the Italians are actually a dab hand at preserving. ‘We had a lot of ferments going on at The Manor and we’ve managed to keep that at Sorella because the Italians do so much preserving as well,’ says Dean. ‘We create things like our own fermented fennel and charcuterie at the moment, but there’s so much more – colatura (a traditional anchovy sauce), bottarga, preserved lemons, giardiniera – that we can play around with in the future. We’ve always done a pork and fennel salami at The Dairy and The Manor, but now we’re making a really peppery coppa as well. Bread is a massive thing for us too; even though sourdough doesn’t appear that much in Italian cooking it’s something we’re focusing on, and because our bread is so soft and has a high moisture content you don’t really need butter with it, so we serve olive oil instead.’

It’s clear Dean loves working with dough, be it bread or pasta, as much as he loves preserving. ‘Dough is so nice to work with because it can change throughout the day – although that does keep you on your toes,’ he says. ‘We use Gilchesters Organics flour which is incredible as it imparts this really nutty flavour into the pasta which you just don’t get with the traditional Italian 00 flour. The gluten content can vary from bag to bag, though, so you have to think a little bit more when you’re working with it.’

There are other little things which make Dean’s take on Italian cooking unique. House-made miso in the bread; venison with cavolo nero and bay leaf panna cotta are things you wouldn’t necessarily see in a traditional trattoria in the Old Country. But that’s what makes Sorella such a popular restaurant. Like Bæst in Copenhagen, which is famous for its sourdough pizzas, Sorella cooks Italian cuisine with a distinctly modern twist.

‘Italians can be very traditional, and we’ve had some people watch us put sliced fennel with linguine and wondered what on earth we’re doing,’ says Dean. ‘But purists and traditionalists are never going to like anything that strays from the classics. Just as many Italians have been in and think what we’re doing is amazing.’

This way of cooking – combining Italian dishes with a modern British and even slightly Nordic twist – is the key to Sorella’s success. But the way the menu is divided up is distinctly Italian, with dishes to be shared by the table and antipasti to nibble on before the primi (starters) secondi (mains) and dolci (desserts). ‘That’s what I love about Italian food – the style of eating,’ says Robin. ‘It’s all very family-orientated and everything is shared. Italian dishes also go so well with wine, whereas – and I know I could get slagged off for this – I find I can’t drink red wine with cuisines like Indian or Chinese. The synergy between Italian cuisine and wine is hundreds of years old, and it makes it such an enjoyable thing to experience.’

The primi pasta courses at Sorella change depending on what vegetables the team get in every week, but there’s almost always some form of gnocchi, tagliatelle and linguine on the menu. Antipasti and cicchetti (snacks) include things like truffle arancini, fried olives and Dean’s own charcuterie, but the secondi are where the kitchen team seems to have the most fun.

‘In Italy lots of the secondi are cooked over fire, which is something we’re doing a lot at Sorella,’ explains Dean. ‘We get whole cows in, which means we can hang big cuts of meat like sirloin over our ceramic grill and let it gently smoke and cook until it gets up to 52°C. Then we can just carve pieces off it as we go through service instead of cooking individual portions, which is a really nice way of working.’

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Robin and Dean had been working on the concept for Sorella for years, and Dean would still like to open a bakery nearby which turns into a more relaxed snack and wine bar at night
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Dishes at Sorella change every week depending on what's in season, but things like the truffle arancini are more evergreen (and always popular)

Another reason Robin was so keen to open Sorella was the fact that he’d started working with Indie Ecology, a forward-thinking farm project run by Igor Vaintraub. When Robin was working at Don Alfonso in Italy, the restaurant revolved around the owner’s farm, which would arrive every morning and dictate what was on the menu. Robin wanted to do something similar in Clapham.

‘I got an email from Brett Graham at The Ledbury who put us in contact with Igor as they’d been working together for a few years,’ explains Robin. ‘We’d been using suppliers like Namayasai and Natoora who are great, but to have our own plot on a farm was next level. It’s a bit of an investment – in our first year we didn’t get the quantity of produce we wanted – but we’re sticking with him and it’s getting better and better every year. The ingredients we do get from Igor are incredible, and the fact that he’s taking farm land which isn’t necessarily great for growing on and breathing new life into it is really important.’

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The restaurant sources some of its most seasonal vegetables from its own plot at Indie Ecology out near Gatwick, which also turns Sorella's food waste into rich compost
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Many of the secondi at Sorella are cooked over fire, as is the case in many parts of Italy

One of the main things Igor does differently is to take food waste from the restaurants they work with and turn it into nutrient-rich compost, which is how he can reinvigorate the land he grows on. ‘Trash cooking has been going for ages and we use all the scraps we can, but some you just can’t make anything out of,’ says Dean. ‘So when Igor said he could take our waste and turn it into this amazing compost which could then be used to grow new produce, it made total sense. We’ve got a plot out near Gatwick which he looks after and we’re still working out yields and stuff but the vegetables he brings us compared to what you can buy are so much better. It’s so nice working with someone who is so passionate about the ingredients he brings in.’

This dedicated farm, combined with The Dairy’s rooftop garden and beehives along with Dean’s raised beds near the restaurant, means Sorella has access to some of the best produce around. And by using everything they can when it’s in season (preserving what they can’t use fresh later in the year), cooking whole cuts of meat and creating everything they serve in-house (including their own vermouth), the restaurant is set to be sustainable as well as immensely popular. Traditionalists might turn their noses up at some of the more leftfield dishes, but if they do they’re missing a trick – this is some of the most exciting Italian-inspired food to hit the UK in recent history.

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