When I arrive at NYoKee, near Cannon Street station, to meet with founder and owner, Alessandro Grappelli, I find him in the open kitchen, preparing a bowl of his gnocchi in a cacio e pepe (pecorino and black pepper) sauce for lunch. After choosing the spicy Calabrian sausage ragu for my gnocchi, we sit down to talk about this new venture into the lunchtime office worker’s breakfast and lunch trade, expansion plans, fresh ingredients, and educating customers about their product. And it’s a great product.
Before we even sit down, Alessandro is at pains to tell me how the sausage in my ragu isn’t brought in; it’s homemade in their kitchen, like all that they serve. But more on that in a minute. Alessandro first had the idea for a lunchtime takeaway serving the classic Italian gnocchi of his homeland a year ago. Taking the plunge with some colleagues at his Mayfair brokerage, they have been open for two months, tweaking and perfecting the dishes based on feedback from customers, and are now ready to launch fully.
While they offer salads and focaccia sandwiches stuffed with ingredients, each made freshly in the kitchen, it’s the gnocchi they specialise in. Customers have a choice of traditional or spinach gnocci in one of six different traditional sauces, with the option of parmesan to finish it off. What’s wonderful to see and to have as a customer is that none of the gnocchi are just sitting there in trays of sauce ready to be served up, getting drier by the minute. As soon as you order, the team of Italian staff kick into action and you see it all happen before you. The order is passed to the cooks in the open kitchen just behind the counter, who take the fresh gnocchi and freshly made sauce and combine them in a pan, cooking them together just right before handing the food to you. Sounds slow when you’re short of time? Well it isn’t. From order to being handed the finished plate takes no longer than waiting for a cappuccino.
The gnocchi are superb, but I was surprised about it as a lunch for a workday. Alessandro explained: “it works as a good lunch because gnocchi is three-quarters potato so, unlike pasta, which is flour-based, it doesn’t sit heavily in the stomach or make you feel bloated”. And he’s right; it’s the perfect dish for lunch. It filled me up but didn’t leave me dragged down, as lunching at a desk is wont to do for many of us. For those who want to go gluten-free, there’s a superb lasagne. The menu certainly works for those counting calories, and that doesn’t mean salads. No, there’s courgetti. Alessandro brought me a bowl to try. Coated in the Sorrentina sauce (tomato with fresh mozzarella broken over it), it was terrific: fresh, light, clean flavours, and well worth leaving the office for. The flavours and quality will evoke Italy, no problem at all. The tiramisu, by the way, is certainly well worth having as part of the meal deal, and is better than most you’ll find on the market.
The secret, and what differentiates them from other lunchtime food offerings, is the freshness and quality (oh, and the gnocchi of course). The food is so light and clean-tasting because everything is bought fresh from New Covent Garden Market daily and then prepared in the large on-site basement kitchen, where Alessandro leads me next. It’s large and kitted out with state-of-the-art equipment, built with chain expansion in mind. Alessandro tells me that he sees the ingredients and the kitchen as the real USPs, as most of his competitors buy in their pasta and sauces pre-made and simply reheat them. His takeaway is the only one in the UK that he knows of making gnocchi fresh and simply from steamed potato, flour, and eggs.
The kitchen starts work at half past six each morning, prepping NYoKee’s breakfast menu – the poached egg on avocado toast is raved about by customers and word of mouth has brought in the punters – and the sauces for lunch. Then attention turns to prepping the gnocchi. Seventy to a hundred potatoes arrive each day and are peeled before heading into the giant pressure steamer oven, cooking in twelve minutes, thirty kilos at a time. They are then mashed, before the flour and eggs are added, and the mixture transferred to a roller machine that can make eighty kilos of gnocchi an hour. While this happens, the sausages are made and the courgettes turned into courgetti. It’s all about homemade cooking at an affordable price.
During my time with Alessandro, every customer went with the gnocchi; not a single salad or sandwich was ordered despite them being enticing, so clearly the education of customers about gnocchi is going well. Business is steady and rising thanks to word of mouth and apps like Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Meal Pal. Breakfast has also proved hugely popular, and not just thanks to the avocado and poached egg on sourdough toast, but also because NYoKee has, as Alessandro puts it, “the Ferrari of coffee machines”, serving up the oldest coffee brand in Europe, Caffé Hausbrandt.
If business continues to grow at the current rate, Alessandro and his business partners plan to open another three or four stores over the next two years, across Soho, Canary Wharf, and possibly Mayfair, so you may find yourself with a new favourite lunch meal in the not too distant future.