I’ve only been in the Lina Stores restaurant for 15 minutes and already, I suspect I am being set up.
“Have you heard of this place?” a passer-by exclaims to her friends as I stand conveniently within earshot. “It’s got such a cool story behind it … ”
It’s a warm afternoon in London’s Soho, so the doors and windows of the restaurant—a new venture from the owners of the Italian deli of the same name—are open, allowing the warm air and compliments from strangers on the street to pour in. I take a sip of my espresso and watch a gelato delivery arrive, just as another woman appears at the doorway.
“Are you open, yet?” she asks. “I’ve wanted to come here for ages!”
“Not until five, sorry,” Masha Rener, Lina Stores head chef tells the disappointed customer.
Clearly, the Lina Stores restaurant doesn’t need to do much promo. Although the eatery only opened this month, Lina Stores deli, founded in 1944, is (allegedly) the oldest Italian deli in Soho, and located just moments away on Brewer Street. Both share the same iconic, pastel green and white colour scheme—an aesthetic that manages to be both old-school and designed specifically for the ‘gram. Fresh pasta restaurants have popped up across London in recent months, including Pastaio on nearby Carnaby Street and Padella in London Bridge, but only Lina Stores can claim OG status.
To pull off the move from historic Italian deli to on-trend restaurant, Lina Stores needed a skilled chef. After hearing that Masha Rener, an old friend of the owners, had sold her parents’ business in Umbria in order to take a break from hospitality work, the deli offered her the job of launching their new restaurant. She accepted, and moved her entire life to London.
“I was on the phone to Marina, [the manager of Lina Stores deli] and said, ‘I've sold the place. I feel very sad, but for the first time in my life I have vacations and free time,’” Rener remembers. “She told the owner of Lina Stores, and they said, ‘OK, now we can try and do a restaurant together.’”
Was the new Lina Stores restaurant worth Rener moving countries for? I'm here to taste her bottarga and clam spaghetti alla chitarra and find out. Like most things on Rener’s menu, the pasta dish uses only a few ingredients: fresh pasta, clams, chili, garlic, parsley, and wine. It is finished with a delicacy from the south of Italy, a cured fish roe called bottarga, grated over the top like Parmesan.
“It's very balanced because the fish roe is dry and salty so gives it more taste, and I love clams,” Rener tells me. “We were thinking of doing something with mussels in the beginning, but they're very plain.”
Rener begins by making the spaghetti alla chitarra, which literally means, “spaghetti on the guitar.” This cryptic translation is explained when she pulls out a wooden implement covered with thin wires like strings across the bridge of a guitar. She places a sheet of pasta dough on the wires, and applies pressure with a rolling pin until the sheet is sliced into thin strands of spaghetti.
It seems like a lot of effort for a small amount of pasta, especially considering that the bloody machine broke last week, meaning that we had to rearrange our initial interview. I wonder how crucial guitar spaghetti is to the recipe?
“Always [use] fresh pasta,” Rener insists. “Not everyone has the [pasta cutter] at home, but you can cut [pasta] by hand.”
“We made a choice [not to use dry pasta],” she continues. “That pasta takes between ten and 15 minutes, so you have to pre-cook [dry pasta], and I hate the pasta that's precooked. I like fresh. Takes like 30 seconds to cook.”
With the spaghetti cut, we move onto the other ingredients. In Lina Stores’ kitchen, surrounded by piles of fresh gnocchi awaiting tonight’s diners, Rener heats the clams with the garlic and chili. She then cooks the fresh spaghetti and adds it to the clams with sprigs of parsley. Finally, she plates up and finishes the dish with a grating of orange bottarga.
“It's very important to find good ingredients,” Rener tells me, as we sit down to try the dish. It’s salty, and the fresh pasta shines through the chili and garlic. “I always fight for the good ingredients. The recipe doesn't have to be more than four, five main ingredients. It's not in our culture to mix too many ingredients. Our base is a good olive oil—cold pressed—and after that, you build your recipe.”
“Italian cuisine is just like this,” she says, definitively.
Like many Italian restaurants, Lina Stores bases its menu around ingredients that are seasonal and available—many of which it sources from the deli. But for Rener, the stories behind the dishes are just as important as their components. She points to the aubergine polpette (a kind of fried meat or vegetable ball that I recognise from my own Italian grandmother's cooking) and the 'Nduja sausage with ricotta in particular.
“Some are recipes that have little stories behind them. Recipes that come from different times in my life,” Rener explains. “I was travelling a lot in the south, going to Calabria, so [that's why] there is the ‘Nduja. The aubergine polpette comes from my ex-mother-in-law, as she's Sicilian. So she gave me this recipe, her old grandma's recipe.”
Lina Stores might be steeped in history but there’s something very timely about this restaurant, given the current popularity of fresh pasta restaurants. I ask Rener what she makes of the trend and she shrugs in the only way an Italian chef with supreme confidence in her own cuisine can.
“No idea,” she says. “For us, it's just totally normal. We made a concept that belonged to the [deli], not something that’s popular.”
“It's a concept for pasta, and they’ve been selling pasta for 70 years,” she concludes, as I fork another mouthful of the pasta into my mouth.
Before the dish is completely gone, I take a photo to add to my Instagram Story, for all my fans out there. Literal seconds later, I receive a message from my friend.
“I’m so excited to go! Is it good?” she writes.
Now this is getting suspicious.