Wolf Like Me
The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that it is the French, rather than the Italians, who are the European masters of excess. Maybe it’s because French excess is so visceral: livestock not fed but actively stuffed; tiny songbirds not just filleted for edible morsels but fattened in covered cages before being drowned in brandy and consumed whole, the eater’s head draped with a napkin to shield him or her (invariably him) from God’s vengeful gaze. In contrast, you think of Italy as restrained, and effortlessly classy: sports cars and aperitivi bars, Gucci and Pucci and Ornella Muti. The architecture is so beautiful; the art so exquisite. The food simple, profound, meaningful. Italians would never – could never – create anything as grotesque as gavage: think cucina povera, think mama’s boys so in love with the food of their nonna that even the best restaurant in the world features a homage to a mortadella sandwich.
Get real. Look under the surface and Italians are – if anything – even more excessive than their neighbours: they’ve just got a better marketing team. Cycle through your preconceptions once again. That architecture? Screamingly naff, a priapic coping mechanism for small-cocked incestuous aristocrats. The Negroni, that paragon of refined, cosmopolitan, almost austere drinking? A half pint of raw booze that – were it not for the sophisticated allure of its cochineal hue, plus an orange slice – would mark you out as a career alcoholic (try ordering equal parts Tanqueray, white wine, and sloe gin the next time you’re in a pub – you will not get an approving nod).
And the food? The food! Fact: Romans were the first to eat ortolan – they went so far, in fact, to prick out the poor birds’ eyes, turning day into a permanent night, so they’d eat and engorge even faster. Fact: now the kerfuffle around Mad Cow disease has abated, dig around the kitchens of the Testaccio district and you can increasingly find pajata, the intestines of calves so young they have not yet been weaned off their mother’s milk (also fact: once on the grill, this milk curdles and cooks into something approaching a cheese – it is shockingly, appallingly delicious). Even when they’re being simple, they can’t stop being excessive: I have been met with looks of purest horror when requesting a slice of lemon with my plain grilled fish, or a slightly longer cooking time for a bistecca still chewing the cud in the middle.
That’s why I’m always a little suspicious of Italian restaurants outside of Italy that virtue-signal their humility. Places like the River Café, which – whilst no doubt still a vital presence on the London restaurant scene, not least for all it has done to extol the gospel of seasonal, produce-led cooking – always strikes me as a little too spare, a little too stripped back, like that friend from Uni who did Teach First and smiles ruefully when they overhear you wanging on about how you dropped three figures a head on a weekday lunch at Otto’s. Poor misguided fool – if only you knew what really mattered in this life.
Screw that. If I’m doing Italian in London, I’m doing it somewhere that lives a little, which usually means I’m doing it at somewhere Jacob Kennedy owns. There is never a bad time of year to visit Bocca di Lupo, although I’m particularly taken with the depths of winter, when the fried lamb sweetbreads (my single favourite dish in London) jostle for space on the menu with truffles and tortellini and an immodestly overstuffed pork and foie gras luganega. It is at its best at its most maximalist: seated at the bar, overlooking the sweaty chaos of the open kitchen, a pint of wine in hand and something fried cooling on a bit of butcher’s paper in front of you (you will still eat it too early and burn the roof of your mouth).
When Vico opened round the corner a while back, I found it hard at first to get my head round it. Compared to Bocca, it clearly wasn’t as “high end” – whatever that means – and the initial concept (something involving self-service, or piadina, or self-service piadina?) was a little weird. I went a couple of times, and left sated but baffled, and didn’t go back. Until I did, last week, for a premature 30th with people hellbent on getting me drunk and showing me a good time. I managed to dodge most of the neat spirits, but had a wonderful few hours all the same. It recently won a Bib Gourmand (which I think in London means you can pay the bill with cash from your wallet, rather than from a briefcase handcuffed to your wrist); it also has the happy chance of being opposite the theatre showing the Harry Potter show, so they can’t be short on customers. Whatever the reason, the confidence shimmers through every dish and gesture: it is now a palace to excess every bit as fabulous as its older sibling.
Everything – everything – is slightly too much: the pizzas too big, the flavours too riotous, the prices too high, the drinks too strong, the service too charmingly nonchalant, the acoustics too shoddy, the décor de trop. This is a restaurant that will happily serve you a sausage on a stick. This is a restaurant that will serve you a slice of deep-friend lasagne. This is a restaurant that will serve you an incredibly competent pizza base, smack you in the mouth with spice and sweetness and umami on top, and cheekily wink as it asks you to pay £14 for the privilege. It is Italy – the real Italy, the Italy I love, the Italy of ripoffs and bargains and systemic inconsistency – on a plate, in a restaurant, in a high-traffic corner of theatreland, and just because it is where it is it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t rush there post-haste, or indeed post-theatre. You want the “authentic” Italy, the fictional construct of Italy you’ve deluded yourself is the “real” Italy, a tremulous artisan handcrafting pizzas one pie at a time? You want the Eat Pray Love Naples experience? Fine – và fà Napoli. You can find me in the corner at Vico, mugging (Muggling?) off theatregoing tourists, waiting ever so slightly too long for my food. I believe they call it the Appian way.