Kathryn Flett reviews Gloria, London EC2: a born-again old-school trattoria

Kathryn Flett
In excelsis: Gloria - Jerome Galland

Sitting on a large and long-standing restaurant site in London’s Shoreditch, Gloria has been exceptionally cleverly designed, in-house, by new owners the Big Mamma Group, whose 1,500-seater La Felicità in Paris is currently Europe’s largest restaurant. Loaded with convincingly authentic old-skool trattoria signifiers – awnings, curly fonts, greenery – it looks as though it’s been sitting comfortably on the corner of Great Eastern Street and Charlotte Road since about 1968. Except that in 1968 with newly groovy Italian food being still very much a West End phenomenon, nobody in their right mind would have opened a huge glamour-trattoria in grimy Shoreditch.

Indeed, Gloria’s design blueprint is, wittingly or otherwise, probably the original “Spaghetti House” corner site in Goodge Street, aka “the Home of Italian Cooking”. If they’re not actually going to be wielding giant pepper grinders over a mountainous and glutinous carbonara dusted with a small slagheap of parmesan, while making slightly inappropriate, twinklingly Continental comments to the “laydeez”, then it will feel as though they could.

Once inside it’s impossible not to smile – especially for a diner d’un certain age. Squint in order to block out any views of EC2 and it’s  dolce vita perma-summer on the Amalfi coast: there’s colour and texture and verdant planting in the trattoria where we were booked, while the darker, funkier, velvetier adjacent dining room with sexy curtained dining booths shouts “cocktails!” and is open until 2am – way past both mine and my lunch-date India’s weekday bedtimes.

Another ex-Londoner of my vintage who is now comfortably ensconced in the provinces, India nonetheless keeps a weather eye on the zeitgeist, responding with a swift “oh yes, that’s very much on my radar” when I flag up Gloria. Though what with our respective lengthy commutes and shared enthusiasm for ending the day at home, it would have to be lunch. Recently, The New York Times’s former restaurant critic, Frank Bruni, wrote a great column in that paper about his changing attitude to dining out: “I was once under 50. I’m now over that mark. And it’s not just sex and sleep that change as you age. It’s supper.”

I can testify to the veracity of Bruni’s observation that as we age so our appetite also matures “in terms of both the food and the mood you crave. Virgin sensations are less important; knowing that you’ll be able to hear and really talk with your tablemates, more.” Arriving a few minutes before India, I had plenty of time to read the menu and be so spectacularly ignored by the numerous waiting staff that I actually had to jump up and down, waving, in my (admittedly lovely, comfy, cushioned and curvaceous) banquette to secure a glass of tap water and plate of (delightful, warm, melt-in-the-mouth) focaccia “del nonna”.

However, a glance around the busy room revealed that I was demographically at least two decades outside Gloria’s customer comfort zone. “Older diners… are tired of being invisible” notes Bruni. “If you’re under 50, and definitely if you’re under 40, you have yet to experience how you disappear over the years, especially if you’re not a looker and all the more so if you’re a woman. Sustained gazes, casual glances and solicitous words go disproportionately to the young. To age is to feel as if pieces of you are falling or fading away, so that you somehow take up less space in the world. So that you’re harder to see. But not by restaurants that know and value you. To them you’re luminous.”

Sheet music: 'ten-level' lasagne at Gloria Credit: joann pai

Luminous or otherwise, by the time I’d reached my 50s, the desire to suck up new stuff simply to bank memories was being filtered on a need-to-know basis: for zeitgeist, read zzzeitgeist. Thus, by the time India arrived we were so pleased to see each other and so delighted by Gloria’s stunningly staged backdrop that in truth the food, straightforwardly Italian as it is, would play third fiddle to comfort and conversation.

However, food that doesn’t get in the way of enjoying a restaurant is very much its own blessing; in this respect Gloria’s wide-ranging, proficient something-for-everyone menu stepped up. To start, India ordered the carciofo alla giudia – deep-fried crispy artichoke in a cheese and pepper sauce – while I had the polpo fritto; both gone in a flash.  For mains, India ordered the Robert de Niro pizza (the menu is full of this kind of faux-naff playfulness), effectively a posh margherita with some spicy salami – and I had the densely delicious “10-level” lasagne – mozzarella, aubergine and beef and pork ricotta, which was so substantial I asked for half to be boxed up so I could take it home for my 12-year-old’s supper. (He also loved it.)

Fluffy: tiramisù at GLoria Credit: joann pai

Afterwards, we shared a fluffy tiramisù and ordered coffee. Everything we had was very good without in any way being intrusive. I suspect even Bruni would enjoy it. Even though I will never become a “regular” (and even if I did, I suspect Gloria wouldn’t notice), I’ll definitely return. It takes both skill and luck to make a place that only opened in February feel as thoroughly bedded-in as this joint now feels – not only right at home in its neighbourhood but even as it evokes warm nostalgia for the era of strikes and three-day weeks, also right at home in the 21st century.

In modish, binary fashion, Gloria turns out to be not only the perfect place in which to embrace 2019, but also to escape it.