I’ve been thinking for some time of widening the scope of my reviews and including some restaurant kits, the ones where you heat up and/or finish the food in the comfort of your own kitchen. Many restaurants have tried their hands at these, whether they’re high profile London venues, Michelin-starred chefs across the country or plucky local restaurants trying to attract customers further from home. Whether they will continue once restaurants reopen fully in June remains to be seen, but for the time being they promise a very different – and potentially higher end – alternative to a tried and tested takeaway.
But when the time came to sit down and pick one to try out, I found myself gripped by analysis paralysis. It feels like I’ve read countless listicles on the subject, recommending everything from pizzas and burgers to ribs, laksa or full-on three or four course meals. Partly that’s because Reading’s very own Clay’s (filed under “plucky local”) has featured prominently in many of them. But when I tried to remember the ones that had tempted me over the past year, my mind went blank.
I follow some people on Twitter or Instagram who seem to sample a different one every week, and they always look like they are having a fantastic time. But then Instagram is the place where everyone always looks like they’re having a fantastic time. One of the people I follow there has nothing but envy-inducing meals, whether they’re restaurant kits or just him slumming it by knocking something up on one of his (several) barbecues, always impeccably sourced and beautifully cooked.
Don’t you ever just have a cheese sandwich? I asked him. He claimed he did, but scrolling back through his Instagram feed the closest thing I could see was a Dishoom bacon naan or a crab sandwich (crab purchased from Wright Brothers, naturally). Not that it made a blind bit of difference: that man’s photography could make a Pot Noodle look attractive.
So I asked for help and feedback from readers of the blog, and I put together a decent enough list of candidates. Some you buy direct from the restaurant, others from websites like Dishpatch and Home-X which partner with several different named restaurants to give you a choice.
Sometimes they make it clear just how far from rudimentary your kitchen skills will need to be by publishing instructions in advance, sometimes they keep you guessing; given the gaps in both my culinary technique and my kitchen cupboards I found myself gravitating to the former. With most of them you buy a set menu at a set price, some allow you to buy individual dishes. It was still very tricky: I find it hard enough to pick what to watch on Netflix, but this was a whole new level of indecision.
I eventually went for Bocca di Lupo for a couple of reasons. One was that in the last of those listicles I read Jay Rayner put them in his top five restaurant boxes alongside Clay’s. There he was, glowering down the lens in his photo byline, not so much making love to the camera, more feeling it up in a lift. “Chef Jacob Kenedy’s take on a rustic Italian repertoire is a joy”, he said. In another article he called the dishes “muscular”, one of those fantastic words that doesn’t really, in this context, mean anything. But if it was good enough for Jay it ought to be good enough for me.
The other reason was that Bocca di Lupo’s At Home kits, cleverly, come from a different region of Italy every month. So if you order in May all the dishes are from Liguria – rabbit with olive oil mash, trofie with pesto and so on. In April, the dishes are all from Emilia Romagna, a region I first visited three Aprils ago. It seemed too perfect, and so I was sold on the idea.
Bocca di Lupo does three different meal kits – one vegetarian, one with fish and seafood and one with meat, and they all offer different starters and mains, although they share a dessert. The three course meals in April all cost fifty-nine pounds, although the exact price varies from month to month. They also have some extra dishes you can add on, and a very attractive range of cocktails and Italian wines. They deliver Tuesday to Friday every week, although you only have a 48 hour window to eat the food from the date of delivery – this isn’t blast chilled and vacuum-packed the way, say, a Clay’s delivery would be.
Delivery, I found out, was quite steep: £20 nationwide, although it’s free for orders over a hundred pounds. I saw this as a licence to order as many bottles of wine as I needed so as to qualify for free delivery, especially as they sold a Lambrusco, a sparkling red which had got me smudged on several happy lunches in Bologna.
Frustratingly, the initial window you get given for your delivery is any time between 8am and 8pm on the day you have chosen, but Parcelforce texts you that morning with a more specific, hour long delivery slot. As it happened I was very lucky and my driver turned up around half-nine in the morning, but I would have been less thrilled if he’d been there at half seven in the evening. My box was well-packed though, with compostable wool padding (in recyclable plastic linings) and a single ice block keeping everything cool.
I got everything out and had a look at it. It was well packaged in clear plastic, with instructions and blurb stapled to each pack, all present and correct. Was it my imagination, or did it all look a bit, well, small?
We ate the three course meal the following night, and everything was carefully structured so you could prepare and eat your starter while your main was cooking, before moving on to your dessert later on. The starter was tigelle (little muffin-like rolls, made of dough fried in lard) with Parma ham and pesto modenese. All you had to do was roll the dough to just under a centimetre thick, cut it into eight centimetre circles and fry it for about six minutes in the lard provided.
Nice and simple, in theory at least. I do most of the cooking at home, with Zoë as a very willing sous chef. But it’s fair to say that rolling and cutting the dough did bring Zoë to a state of near mutiny. It didn’t help that we didn’t have a rolling pin and had to improvise with a bottle. The claggy dough stuck fast to the inside of the packet. Then Zoë was frustrated that she wasn’t sure whether she’d rolled the dough out a centimetre thick.
“These instructions could be a lot clearer” she said.
“They tell you how thick the dough should be and how wide the shapes should be. That’s pretty specific.”
That helpful observation earned me a withering stare.
“I think what would help is if they told you how many rolls this mixture actually makes.” There was a pause. “Sixty pounds and they ask you to roll your own fucking dough.”
Then Zoë started quoting Bill Murray in Lost In Translation (“what kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?”) and I feared a full-scale insurrection in the kitchen. I offered to take over, but that was met with short shrift. Zoë has always given the cooking a wide berth in our house (although she scrambles a mean egg), so perhaps she was stressed that I’d wind up reviewing her cooking rather than Bocca di Lupo’s.
Anyway, any anxiety was unfounded: we got three slightly irregular tigelles out of the dough, all of them were probably a little too thick and they took longer than the advertised six minutes to cook, but they were delicious. Tasty, but no oil painting: in other words, pretty consistent with all the food I’ve eaten in Emilia Romagna.
They were nicely doughy – certainly not fluffy, but not too stodgy or heavy either. And they were beautiful paired with the Parma ham, nicely dry and with real depth, probably the best I’ve had outside Italy (the instructions tell you to take everything out of the fridge half an hour before you start cooking: the ham, in particular, really needs that).
But the real winner was the pesto modenese. I’ve never had it before, but it’s a pesto made with lardo, parmesan, garlic and herbs. It was mouth-coating stuff, deeply savoury, pungent and salty, simultaneously divine and, in nutritional terms at least, truly evil. I’ve not tasted anything quite like it, and a little went a long way, melting onto the lard-crisped surface of the tigelle. I briefly daydreamed about eating something like that every day, and then I remembered that if I did, I wouldn’t have that many days left in which to do it.
Shortly after the starters had been polished off, I heard the beep from the kitchen telling me that our lasagne was nearly ready. And that’s when I remembered one of the main selling points of these meal kits: I might not have been in a restaurant, but it was so nice to eat a starter, to savour and enjoy it, and then to eat a main course in your own sweet time. Ordering takeaways is always about juggling, making sure nothing goes cold and upgrading your starters to side dishes so you can try everything at once. The relatively unhurried pace of this, by contrast, was properly lovely.
The lasagne couldn’t have been easier to cook and – unlike many shop-bought lasagnes I’ve struggled with over the years – was easy to dish up. It looked the part, with a bubbling top and crispy pasta at the edges (always the very best bit). But I did find myself a little underwhelmed by it. It smelled beautiful out of the oven, and all of the components were terrific – one of the best bechamels I’ve tasted, and a wonderful ragu with strands of beef, veal and pork.
But the whole thing felt out of whack – often I would cut through the layers and couldn’t spot a single piece of meat, even the faintest hint of ragu between any of them. There’s sparing and there’s stingy, and this felt like it fell the wrong side of the line. Not for the first time, I wondered where the fifty-nine pounds had gone: I never enjoy those thoughts, because they make me feel like that kind of person.
The side salad, which I dressed while the lasagne was cooling slightly out of the oven, was also very pleasant – a bag of rocket with shaved fennel and a dressing which sang with citrus. But a fair few of the fennel shavings were from the woody part of the bulb, and less enjoyable to eat. I enjoyed the whole thing, but – a bit of a theme here – I wasn’t sure whether I was sixty pounds enjoying myself.
“I know what you mean” said Zoë. “It’s nice, but is it really that much nicer than a lasagne from COOK?” It seemed a fair challenge.
After a brief pause – it might have been longer if we’d been fuller – I fetched in our dessert, which had had plenty of time to come to room temperature. Torta Barozzi is an iconic cake from Vignola, a small town west of Bologna. A pasticceria there has been making it for the best part of one hundred and fifty years, and although they guard their recipe jealously, Bocca di Lupo loved it enough to have worked on their own rendition. This kind of detail was something Bocca di Lupo did really well – I loved all the blurb and backstories, the love of food that was plainly on display.
Anyway, the cake. It really was beautiful – a dense, rich slab of all the best things, almonds and coffee, rum and chocolate. Almost like a ganache, but with plenty of nutty texture and thoroughly infused with gorgeous, boozy, warming rum. It was one of the best cakes I’ve had, and like all the best cakes it felt like it ended half a dozen forkfuls too soon. For that moment, ekeing it out, I felt transported in the best sense. I’ll most likely never make it to Vignola – by this point I’d probably settle for an afternoon trip to Pangbourne – but somehow a little bit of me had made that journey, from my sofa, thanks to Bocca di Lupo.
The meal over, I found it harder than usual to work out whether it was an experience I’d recommend. On the one hand, delivery is expensive, and although I loved the quality of much of what I’d had I did keep wondering where all the money had gone. And then I thought about the things I’d got to try – that torta, or the pesto modenese – that I simply couldn’t have eaten anywhere else.
“What would have had to be different for you to have liked it more?” said Zoë as we conducted our post mortem before watching another episode of Call My Agent.
“It’s a good question. Everything was good, but I kept thinking there should have been… more, somehow. This region isn’t about fancy, pricey food, but you’re meant to eat really well.”
“True. The most expensive thing was probably the Parma ham.”
“I think the thing that clinched it was probably the lasagne. I was surprised by just how little ragu was in it.”
I also kept thinking about how far that money would have stretched spent elsewhere. Very few takeaways I’ve had came to sixty pounds (not including the twenty pound delivery charge). And I have limited experience of heat at home kits, but I’ve eaten enough Clay’s at home to know that sixty pounds there would get you colossal amounts of food (and they charge less for delivery, use more ice packs and their food lives longer). In a way, eating Bocca di Lupo At Home managed to replicate many, many meals out I’ve had in London over the years: there were things I enjoyed, but I’m not sure I would do it again.
That’s the problem with heat at home kits, too – there are so many out there to try. And when I thought about it some more, what I’d eaten made me more likely to check out Bocca di Lupo’s site in London one day than to order their restaurant kit again. Maybe, on some levels, that’s the point. But would I pick it over Mele e Pere on Brewer Street, with its colossal collection of vermouths, or the extravagant cheeriness of Bloomsbury’s Ciao Bella?
As a postscript, the following night we had an add-on from Bocca di Lupo as our dinner – the tagliatelle Bolognese. This cost sixteen pounds, and couldn’t have been easier to prepare – the fresh pasta took a couple of minutes and the ragu (which came with a little puck of butter, because butter makes everything better) cooked through in no time.
This meal I absolutely loved – the ragu came through more strongly, and it really was beautiful pasta, the whole thing topped with a snowdrift of Parmesan. It was so nice that I briefly considered making Pasta Evangelists my next heat at home review, until I remembered that they counted Giles Coren as an investor.
“This is so much better” said Zoë. “And it feels like you get much more of the ragu that you did with the lasagne. It’s decent value, too, compared to everything else.”
“That’s true, but it still isn’t masses of ragu.” I said. The blurb for this dish said This is a recipe for pasta with sauce – there should be little enough sauce that you can really taste the pasta. Sometimes, less is more. It made me think of all those sneaky inauthentic restaurants I’d eaten at in Bologna, where you get a sizeable cairn of ragu on top of your pasta and you never have to say “when” as they dust on the Parmesan: somebody really ought to tell them that they’re letting the side down. So it was good, but not quite enough: Bocca di Lupo, somehow, in a nutshell.
Bocca di Lupo At Home