Peach Report

Small plates, big business

20 June, 2012

From family independents like Assaggetti to chains like Zizzi, the small plates concept has been a striking development in Italian casual dining. Tom Holman on why less often means more.

It was once the preserve of Spanish food, but tapas is spreading fast. Most cuisines have now adapted to suit modern diners’ appetites for a varied and shared style of eating, but nowhere is the trend more striking than in the UK’s favourite eating out sector—Italian.

Leading lights here include Assaggetti, the ‘bar and bites’ concept launched on Haymarket last year by veteran Italian operator Stefano Fraquelli and his son, Andrea. Fraquelli senior should certainly have his finger on the pulse of Italian food trends, with his family background in The Spaghetti House brand and, after an amicable split in the family’s interests, now focusing on his Metropolitan Restaurants, the group that also includes Getti on Marylebone High Street and Jermyn Street and Zia Teresa in Knightsbridge.

He pitches Assaggetti firmly between casual and fine dining, with a price point in the upper-middle regions. Fusing traditional Italian dishes with thoroughly contemporary design, it offers a wide range of small plates, as well as slimmed-down portions of its main dishes and miniature desserts, plus selections of three dishes for £11.25.

Operationally, offers like these are a challenge to pull off, with so many different dishes all cooked fresh to order, even if many can be prepped in advance, and a pressure to deliver. As Fraquelli points out: “You can’t disguise mediocrity in small quantities.” But the sociability and flexibility that the Assaggetti concept offers—the opportunity to dip in and out of eating, and the freedom to sit with anything from a bowl of olives and a glass of wine to a full-blown meal—are, increasingly, what people want from their casual dining.

Small—but growing fast
A few years ago Assaggetti’s concept would have been unique, but plenty of others have joined the fray. Among the most noteworthy—and a restaurateur to whom Fraquelli tips his hat—is former Caprice man Russell Norman, whose Polpo serves up Venetian-style cicchetti small plates in a 50-cover site in Soho. It has since spawned Polpetto, which is currently relocating in Soho from the French House, and da Polpo in Covent Garden. Like Assaggetti, all three have been critically acclaimed.

The small plates trend has not gone unnoticed by the UK’s larger chains, either. Towards the end of last year Zizzi launched its own cicchetti menu across all restaurants following a trial in London. It too is chasing Italian authenticity, with a dozen dishes including insalata caprese and zucca al forno.

Helen Higgins, head of food and drink marketing at Zizzi, says about a third of customers buy the cicchetti dishes in singles as side dishes, with the rest bought in multiples of three for £14 or five for £20, as starters or to share with friends. She says the range has worked “extremely well”, and Zizzi is continuing to fine-tune. “We've changed the menu a lot, learning as we go about what works best.”

Other Italian operators will be watching the small plates trend with interest—but one is so confident in the future of tapas-style eating that it has put its name above the door. San Carlo Cicchetti has been a hit in Manchester since opening in late 2010, and next up is a Cicchetti on Piccadilly, close to the Crown Estate’s St James’ Gateway development. Group chairman Carlo Distefano says the 2,750 square feet site will be San Carlo’s London flagship—and with Assaggetti a few blocks away and Norman’s trio just beyond, it will cement the small plates formula in the West End.

Cheaper, healthier, friendlier
What is behind the trend for small plates? Higgins thinks price is a factor, with tapas-style eating making for a cheaper meal—though bills can mount up if customers get carried away with ordering. A widespread interest in eating more healthily is also important. “Some customers are looking for lighter bites, especially during the day.”

Fraquelli agrees, pointing out that eating a couple of small plates is a good way for customers to downsize from full meals—even in London, which at times has seemed immune from the recession. “Consumers are retrenching and living within their means much more now—and we’re in a good place to catch that.”

He thinks Assaggetti is a very inclusive concept, appealing to a broad range of consumers from solo diners to families to corporates. It also plays to a greater sophistication among diners, who want to try a range of tastes without committing to a single plate they may or may not enjoy. “People want variety, quality and authenticity—but without the quantity.”

So far, the concentration of small plate restaurants in the West End is no coincidence, as it works well for both post-work and pre-theatre eating, both of which tend to entail shared, flexible and often speedy dining. “It goes well with the metropolitan way of eating,” says Fraquelli. But as San Carlo’s Manchester Cicchetti and others show, this is a concept that works well beyond London, too. And while still honing the formula on Haymarket, Fraquelli certainly has high hopes for Assaggetti as a roll-out concept. “At this point I can definitely see tens [of branches]—but in the long-term I think it can get into the hundreds.”

More small bites
Five London Italian tapas specialists to check out

Bocca di Lupo, Archer Street
Uses small plates to showcase regional and obscure Italian dishes

Briciole, Homer Street
Traditional trattoria updated with small tasting plates and sharing platters, with a bar and deli attached

Cecconi’s, Burlington Gardens
Mayfair institution with a new cicchetti menu influenced by Enzo Cecconi’s Venetian roots

Opera Tavern, Catherine Street
Third site from the team behind Salt Yard on Goodge Street and Dehesa on Ganton Street, all with Spanish as well as Italian influences and an emphasis on meat and wines

Valentina, Upper Richmond Road
The Putney branch of this four-strong chain of delis and restaurants has a dedicated spuntino bar with small plates