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Sunday, August 19, 2007

The cream of Italian cuisine

‘Reveal the sin but not the sinner’ is an old Italian adage which comes handy on this occasion. We will fail to denounce a sinner (against Italian cuisine). Why? Because the sinner is a chef whose restaurant was suggested to us by a common friend, a person in the trade for whom we have a lot of respect. He knows what he is talking about, so we must assume that the chef in question is indeed capable of fine cooking, but has taken a different commercial position, and pushes for precisely that kind of Italian cooking which takes us back to the olden days when, as kids on a Saturday night, all we could afford were those greasy, cheap and cheerful trattorias all cream, cream and more cream to try and stretch the flavour of more expensive ingredients that bit further, and which put us off Italian restaurants in London for more than ten years. Have you seen “Spaghetti house”? Anyhow, for this (and many other establishments which have taken the same stance) the formula obviously works, as the place was nicely buzzing and has raving reviews from very satisfied customers.

We started blogging on a mission, that of denouncing establishments that tarnish the image of Italian cuisine abroad…So let’s find a compromise between friendship and ‘duty’: we will describe just the sin, maybe turning a terrible Friday night experience into a general lesson which we hope will be useful to those of you approaching Italian dining. So we present to you:

Ten clues for the keen observer to spot un-fine Italian dining:

(In a place with Spartan mise en place, but welcoming and tasteful décor, a bread basket with good bread, and the most cheerful, efficient and pleasant waitress, doing her job alone in a room with twenty-two customers).

Clue number 1: The wine list is inadequate and, especially, does not indicate the producer of the wine. For example it tells you only ‘Cannonau di Sardegna, £19.95’. You (and we) probably would not know the producer even if it was mentioned; nonetheless the lack of indication is a sure signal that the restaurateur does not care about his cellar. Indeed, the bottle of Cannonau we ordered was too warm, clearly badly kept. The liquid turned out to be an overly acidic, thin affair, nothing to do with proper Cannonau, which is the variety the Spanish call Garnacha and the French Grenache, capable of producing wines of powerful personality.

Clue number 2: At dinner (Friday night) the waitress asks you if you want salad with your pasta. This got us seriously worried, as it simply cannot happen in fine dining Italian restaurants. Pasta is not eaten with salad, full stop. At a lunch break during work, it may happen that you want to have a light meal with only a pasta and a salad, but even then you’ll have a pasta and then the salad, or a salad and then the pasta. Together, no. No chef would want the oil and vinegar in the salad to interfere with a nice pasta sauce.

Clue number 3: The waitress expresses surprise and concern when you say that you intend to have a main course after the pasta. ‘Are you sure? Pasta dishes are quite big, main courses, really’. For us, pasta is normally not a main course. In a standard meal, it is the dish that precedes the main course, normally meat, beef or fish. Are we the first Italian specimens they see? Fear rises.

Clue number 4: The pasta sits artlessly in a pool of creamy, buttery and cheesy condiment. The waitress asks if you want additional grated cheese. Oh my God, we want to disappear. Even if olive oil is not universally or exclusively used in all Italian regions, dairy excess in the dish is the hallmark of drab Italian cuisine. This is the case for the pasta below (at £6.95):

Clue number 5: The waitress threatens you with the dreaded giant peppermill. Help! That does bring back memories from the cheap haunts of student days. How can one know if he wants pepper in the pasta, if he does not know what it tastes like? Can’t the chef decide: does pepper go into this recipe or not? (Note: in trattorias in Italy, usually salt, pepper oil and vinegar sit on the table, for use if needed).

Clue number 6: The ‘Reginette with wild mushrooms and artichokes ’ (above) is just pasta with preserved artichokes and mushrooms. In fine Italian cuisine venues (actually, not only in fine establishments, to think about it), if you see a description like that, you expect fresh mushrooms and artichokes. (At any rate, flavour rules: there were no flavours in this stodgy condiment).

Clue number 7: The pasta is overcooked. This was the case for the ink linguine with prawns below (£8.95), a decently interesting dish (with ‘butterflied’ prawns), marred by the ocean of cream/butter sauce and, most of all, the not ‘al-dente’ cooking. Pasta must have a bite, and even if a cooking mistake must occur, better under than over cooked. Overcooked pasta is disgusting.

Clue number 8: Cutlery is of strange dimensions. In our case, the forks for the pasta were Lilliputian. The normal-sized fork for the main course is described as ‘giant’. (Maybe, as we chose a pasta before the main, it had to be classified as a starter, hence the miniature proportions).

Clue number 9: Your special of the day (for us, monkfish wrapped in prosciutto on a bed of spinach, £12.50), has the texture of a mushy mess, shamelessly yielding at the lightest pressure of the fork. Man and Woman, while agreeing that too much water had permeated and eventually destroyed the tissue, had different theories as to how this feat might have been accomplished. Man thought it had simply been overcooked (he also liked the idea of stylistic unity with the pasta). Woman, on the contrary, opined that it had been really badly frozen.

Clue number 10: The spinach have dirt in them. Come on guys, it must have said on the packet to ‘wash thoroughly before eating’!! (ok, we are being unfair here, indeed we believe they were of good quality). We take it as a sure sign of kitchen sloppiness, and an indication that something else will go wrong.

We are already at 10? Well it was worse than we thought, obviously – as we have two more:

Clue number 11: Stringy and dry game. The pheasant (£12.50) below (did you guess it: immersed in a creamy sauce to complement the mashed potatoes) was both. Maybe it had not been hung.

Clue number 12: The coffee is rubbish, what in Italian dialect is called 'ciofeca' (though at least cheap by London standards, at £1.35).

We have been primed since our childhood to eat everything in the plate (unless positively toxic): we just can’t stand the sight of unfinished food. So we soldiered on to the end, and returned absolutely clean dishes (well, almost, as we left in the cream, and part of the – soggy - mash) to the delight of the waitress who exclaimed: ‘I can see you really liked everything!’. Embarrassed smile on our part. But we could not face the desserts (can you imagine tiramisu’ at this point? Or cheesecake?)

For a two course meal, water (£2.95) and wine we spent £73.29. Add two desserts (which would be another £10, including 12.5% service), and you would be catching up with real fine dining budgets in London (depending on wine, of course), surely with smaller portions, but incommensurably more pleasure.


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