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Tiella at The Compton Arms: Rustic Islington Italian is the definition of ‘good things come in small packages’

Small the restaurant might be, but the portions are not. Pictured: braised ox cheek, risotto, salsa verde  (Hannah Twiggs)
Small the restaurant might be, but the portions are not. Pictured: braised ox cheek, risotto, salsa verde (Hannah Twiggs)

Sundays in winter are for canoodling in cosy pub corners, nursing food babies (and possibly hangovers) and bemoaning the approaching doom of Monday.

Somewhere that’s “two minutes from a bus stop… on a side street, and drunks and rowdies never seem to find their way there”. Hidden, but only to those that don’t know where to look. Preferably with “a clientele that consists mostly of regulars who occupy the same chair every evening and go there for conversation as much as the beer”, the latter of which should be as diverse as it is plentiful. A small garden and Victorian architectural features are also a must.

That was George Orwell describing his (and my) ideal pub in 1946, thought to be inspired in part by The Compton Arms in Islington, which, against the odds, is still going. Whether he’d loathe or secretly love its reincarnation as a, dare I say it, gastropub playing host to a rotation of London’s coolest residencies, it seems a good place to start. That no elbowing through throngs of Arsenal supporters so close to the Emirates Stadium only adds to its appeal.

So that’s where Ellis and I find ourselves one Sunday afternoon when canoodling and cosiness and comfort food are required. The foodie Instagram elite were last here for Four Legs, famous for their chart-topping burger and presumably other food, who’ve now set up shop in their own cool pub in Finsbury Park.

But since April 2023 (it’s cool to be late to the party, okay), the tiny kitchen stuffed in the back has been home to Tiella, a rustic Pugliese affair from chef Dara Klein, who’s finally got her own gig in London by way of stints at Brawn, Trullo and Sager + Wilde.

The phrase “good things come in small packages” has never rang more true than at Tiella. There’s only a handful of seats in the snug, some more in the garden when the weather’s behaving, they’re closed two days of the week and only do a full service on the weekend. This is eating out in London, after all. An abundance of restaurants, a scarcity of tables.

The menu is also small (though I prefer brevity to the curse of choosing) but mighty. One of those where the size of the plate can only be judged by the price of the dish. Once you’ve taken a crash course in the Puglia dialect, or bashfully asked the waiter what on earth saor is, you’d better undo the top button of your jeans. Small, the portions are not.

The mightiest of which is the last: the day’s special, a great hunk of fall-apart braised ox cheek, the slivers of meat as silky as the risotto it sits on, salsa verde a welcome chop through the richness. Best devoured by two. Neither Ellis nor I are Pudding People – we agree that dessert is best distilled, on the smoother side and over ice – so this is technically the finale, and a good one at that.

It seems strange to say that this kind of rustic simplicity can feel so original these days. Another curse of dining in London, I suppose

The mains, then (you never can be sure these days) are two pastas: pasta e fagioli and tonnarelli all’Amatriciana. The first, literally “pasta and beans”, is technically more of a soup that varies as much as the regions of Italy that claim its provenance. Klein’s is borlottis, dried malloreddo from a pastaio in Sardinia, and porcini “like my ma used to”. A heavy hand with rosemary and soffrito is the star here, the show a medley that’s both hearty and fresh in equal measure. Perfect for lapping up guilt-free in midwinter.

The Amatriciana, meanwhile, seems like just a fancy way of saying tomato pasta. Don’t get me wrong, slow-cooked guanciale is delicious any day of the week, and simplicity welcome, but for £16 you might expect slightly more frills.

Frills can be found among the smaller plates (starters, bites, whatever you want to call them), though. There’s bread, of course, there always is: sometimes it doesn’t need mentioning but this one is freshly baked E5 sourdough. It’s worth refraining from chomping down the whole loaf if you can – there’s plenty to mop up in the form of Pugliese olive oil, which Klein ships in from a trusted partner in Italy and I’m tempted to drink, or the aforementioned saor (Venetian for “flavour”, if you must know, and a sweet and sour onion dressing) which douses a neat row of anchovies. With crunchy bits of corn and rings of pickled pink onions, it reimagines the dish that has become the poster child of small plates in new and funky ways.

White anchovies in saor; pasta e fagioli and tonnarelli all’Amatriciana (Hannah Twiggs)
White anchovies in saor; pasta e fagioli and tonnarelli all’Amatriciana (Hannah Twiggs)

Winter tomatoes (superior to summer’s in every way) wedged in a Vesuvius-sized mound of ricotta and balsamic glaze, and some of the plumpest and briniest marinated olives I’ve had this side of the continent, also shouldn’t be missed.

It seems strange to say that this kind of rustic simplicity can feel so original these days. Another curse of dining in London, I suppose. Out-of-towners must think me insane. In some ways, there’s something of the “if it ain’t broke” about Tiella, which it certainly isn’t. Its simplicity is a welcome reprieve from the lofty, almost virtue-signalling, inventiveness many new chefs feel obliged to employ, and us to endure, when they first get their name on the door. We get it; you’re here to make a grand entrance, a good impression.

But sometimes that’s achieved just as much in a comforting bowl of pasta e fagioli, done right, in the back of an unassuming Islington boozer. It’s also proof that small spaces like these aren’t a prerequisite for an intimate omakase, a trend currently sweeping the cupboards of every restaurant in town desperate for cash, or other such teeny-tiny plate nonsense.

No, Tiella isn’t that. It isn’t trying to be and it doesn’t need to be either. The menu isn’t perfect – certainly a little too carb-heavy – but there’s a joy in watching a chef cook what they really love, not what they think we will. And sure, you might have to stomach a bottle of natural, organic, biodynamic, orange (insert other Gen Z buzzwords here) wine, but that seems a small price to pay for genuinely good food.

Our rating: ★★★★☆

Around £100 for two people with drinks

Tiella, Compton Arms, 4 Compton Ave, London N1 2XD | 020 7354 8473 | ComptonArms@localsclub.co.uk