Whether it’s Mario Batali and Oscar Farinetti kicking off an unstoppable food hall trend with Eataly or dumping a Berlusconi clone in the White House, it seems the world just can’t get enough of that Italian steez.
The people you’re most likely to see eating out in Iceland are those with enough youthful vigour to leave the house, and enough disposable income to splash on three course meals in Reykjavík (think those born 1970-1985). The ones whose student life and early adulthood was synonymous with pasta, noodles, pasta and more pasta. The generation who, in the most un-Italian way possible, ate their strings of boiled dough all alone, usually over MTV and bad weed. The fact that these people can still stomach the idea of Italian food is a miracle.
The dominance of pasta as a young person’s go-to cheap eat peaked with Jamie Oliver’s Naked Chef. There, the urban casual Londoner and a small group of actors playing the role of his adoring friends brought us closer to the pasta motherland through pukka kitchen hacks. Thus we shed the goopy student pasta sauce of Bónus and beyond. This was followed by a decline in interest as our collective culinary horizons expanded, as a growing variety of produce became available and the status gained from flaunting your kitchen wizardry became more chic. The hashtag “foodie” was born, and surely we would never return to the dark ages of basic bitch pasta.
But of course we did. The popularity of Italian food is cyclical, and never disappears. With each cycle of rebirth it takes a different form—as a mediterranean diet, as slow food, as simplicity incarnate. And with each rebirth, its ingredients and techniques are embedded further in our culinary consciousness. Italian cuisine has become an extension of our own. Hakk og spaghetti (ground beef and spaghetti) is as Icelandic to me as harðfiskur (dried cod). Inventions like Fettuccine Alfredo, garlic bread, and penne alla vodka belong to America as much as they ever did to Italy.
Italian food is eternal. Even in our food-hip and gluten-intolerant times, the cuisine can forge a truce through alternative grain pastas, amaros, sourdough pizzas, guanciales, and ’nduja. Italian food has so much to offer, that it can adapt to anything you throw at it, rebranding whilst finding new ways to infect us with the dolce vita.
If all of this has left ye hankering for Italian, here is the quick guide to what Reykjavík has to offer.
The oldest operating pizzeria in Iceland, Hornið opened in 1979. Italian food was the the first to represent that most cringe-worthy of terms, “ethnic cuisine”, and it remains the best represented ethnic cuisine in Iceland (where are my Polish restaurants at?). Try their dependable, basic thin-crust pizzas.
Iceland has never had a significant number of Italian expats, but Ítalía has the dual distinction of being run by actual bonafide Italians and being the second-oldest Italian joint in town (1991). This is a place for fried eggplant parm, seafood pastas, and decor cheesier than their rigatoni.
Oh Piccolo. With your bizarre spelling error. It is the little restaurant that could. Owned and managed in a slightly ramshackle fashion by a native Italian, it does serve up pretty decent Italian fare at sane prices. But the owner doesn’t have a marketing bone in his body and with the homemade sign, strange decor, and grainy food pics online, it’s hard not to root for the guy.
Mar Bar doesn’t identify as an Italian place. It’s a modern take on Northern Italian food with a Nordic flair (at least as much flair as us terminally stoic Scandis can muster). Think grilled vegetables, polenta, arctic char, monkfish liver, cured meat, full-flavored cheese, and well-rounded cocktails.
Marshall Restaurant & Bar
Marshall is a little out of the way, in a minimal and wide-open space framed by brutalist touches. Expect golden redfish crudo, ‘nduja and langoustine tagliolini, and moonshine cocktails in the well-heeled millennial foodie’s Italian restaurant of choice.
Borðið falls firmly in the category of “Mediterranean Cuisine” in the Yotam Ottolenghi style. It features a rotating seasonal menu with nods to North African, Israeli, and Italian food. Think roasted veggies, bastardized pestos, shakshouka, and hummus. You won’t leave hungry.
While less likely to dodge the designation of Italian, Essensia doesn’t exactly flaunt it, either. The atmosphere is relaxed, and the service fussy—if it wasn’t for the legs of cured meats hanging from the rafters, it would pass for an upscale French joint. Grab an excellent Neapolitan pizza and tenderloin carpaccio.
On the Horizon
Massimo og Katia have just opened their Italian specialty store at Laugavegur 163. There are rumors of a new Italian place opening at the Hlemmur Food Hall set to open in June. Modernist Italian restaurant Kolabrautin is undergoing some kind of mysterious revamp. At last, but not least, Jamie’s Italian is set to open a branch smack in downtown sometime this July.