When the effects of the novel coronavirus outbreak forced UK restaurants to close for eat-in customers in March, Ombra quickly pivoted to a new business model. Retaining its staff and continuing to operate, while keeping customers safe, the Hackney Italian restaurant launched a fresh delivery service, evolving to include a pastifico and deli offering. Four months later, the restaurant has re-opened with some new measures to follow government guidelines, but has also kept the successful pastifico and deli throughout the day – ultimately creating another arm of the business.
“It wasn’t an easy decision for anyone to close the restaurant doors, and we really had to think about what we were going to do to survive,” Head Chef Mitshel Ibrahim tells The London Economic. “Ombra is an Italian restaurant, which is heavily focussed on pasta we make fresh on site. So when it all happened it felt very natural to switch into a kind of pasta production lab, selling, of course, pasta, as well as a couple of simple sauces for people to assemble, some cold cuts, cheeses, wines, cocktails and fresh groceries.”
“When it came to survival tactics, we went with what we knew. Pre-corona we used to get occasional requests from our regulars for boxes of pasta to cook at home. However due to space limitations we were only able to offer this service if people pre-ordered it, making it a bit less inclusive for those that were a bit less organised or spontaneous. So when we decided to close our doors as a restaurant due to the coronavirus, instead of sending our staff away we figured – everyone loves pasta, let’s make heaps of it and sell it with a couple of simple sauces. Pasta doesn’t travel well once cooked – the starch binds it together as the pasta cools turning into a gloopy, lumpy mess. So we thought about selling uncooked pasta for people to cook for themselves at home and assemble with sauces which we also prepare.”
In addition to running the pastificio and deli throughout the day, normal dinner service has resumed during the evenings. Some slight changes have been introduced, however. Two entrances are used, intending to direct guests safely through the restaurant, should they need to go in and out; a set menu is being served for dinner (£39 per-person); and outdoor seating on the restaurant’s ‘Altana’ terrace can now be booked for the first time. The restaurant is also taking part in the government’s new ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme through August.
As for the food, Ombra continues to serve the same style of cooking that rendered it one of the most exciting Italian restaurants in London before lockdown. The menu changes with the seasons, however, and the restaurant team are proud to use exactly the same suppliers as before, who they’ve been supporting for the past four months – either by continuing to buy their produce, or by making the restaurant available as a collection point for the likes of Flourish Farm.
The set menu features a selection of the kitchen’s greatest hits, while the a la carte menu’s highlights may include the likes of practically perfect gnocco fritto, crowned with paper-thin slivers of mortadella or speck; or an entire fried globe artichoke; or summery courgette flowers, also fried and joined by Scamorza and anchovies.
Pasta is where the restaurant really excels. And while dishes are typically pricier than London’s new wave of pasta-centric restaurants, they’re generally exemplary. Dainty ravioli filled with sheep ricotta and generously smattered with summer truffle slices; tagliatelle with Scottish girolle mushrooms and Piemonte hazelnuts – a celebration of exceptional produce; expertly-made bucatini with Native lobster and ripe Datterini tomatoes.
“We’ve also started selling our freshly made pasta so you can also enjoy it in other restaurants such as Laughing Heart, Hill & Szrok and Bright,” explains Mitshel. “We’ll also be launching our online store this month, which will sell the pastas, the Ombra sauces and other produce we make on site.”