Julie Bindel

Britain’s Italian restaurants are rubbish

Everything from the ingredients to the aesthetics are off

  • From Spectator Life

You are in an Italian restaurant when a waiter appears brandishing a giant pepper grinder. The spaghetti carbonara is made with cream and garnished with a sprig of parsley. You suddenly realise that you are not, after all, in the Tuscan hills, but somewhere in the UK.

An Italian restaurant in London will serve you a cappuccino after dinner

Is it possible for Italian restaurants in the UK to be authentic? Some of the Greek restaurants in London I’ve eaten in are so much the real deal that I have managed to forget I’m not in Athens. Similarly, some of the Spanish restaurants – such as those on Portobello Road – are indistinguishable from those in Spain, except for the weather and the smoking. But I have never found a good enough replica of an Italian restaurant in the UK, from the tiny neighbourhood joint to the Michelin-starred destination restaurant.  

Let’s take the ingredients. I know many Italians who will not touch a tomato in the UK, let alone serve one. In the winter, Italian chefs in Tuscany use polpa, finally chopped and skinned tomatoes canned within hours of being harvested, which taste and smell just like fresh ones. Only such brands as Cirio or Mutti are acceptable; no serious chef in Italy would dream of using substandard tomatoes to make a sauce.

Not so in the UK. I remember visiting what is supposedly one of the best Italian restaurants in Glasgow, a city with a large Italian population. I ordered bruschetta – a simple but delicious antipasto of grilled bread on which a cut clove of garlic is rubbed before it gets drizzled with fruity olive oil and topped with very ripe, deseeded, roughly chopped tomatoes. A dish that should taste of sunshine. Sadly, the pale, underripe offering I was served tasted of a too-cold fridge. Chilling tomatoes is a crime against humanity (in Italy, it’s a hanging offence). When I called the waiter back and complained about the temperature, he told me, with an arrogant tilt to his head, ‘In Italy, we do not use cooked tomatoes for this dish’. I paid my bill and went for a curry.

It’s not just the food, it’s the aesthetic. The fine ristorante in Lucca I visited last weekend is old school. In the middle of the room sits a large wooden cabinet. It’s where the waiters open the wine and where the bottles of olive oil and vinegar are kept. The floor is stone and the chairs, wooden. No carpets, no seat cushions, and absolutely no music, which would distract from family arguments.

An Italian restaurant in London will serve you a cappuccino after dinner without so much as a disapproving glance. They will bring grated parmesan cheese even if you are eating seafood ravioli. Try that in Italy and see what happens. A proper Italian place should have at least one or two dishes of cucina povera – or poor food. Pappa al pomodoro (stale bread, olive oil and fresh tomato) or zuppa di farro con fagioli (a soup of grain and white beans).

The Roman classic of spaghetti with cheese and pepper (cacio e pepe), so popular across Italy, is only just creeping onto menus in the UK. When I asked the manager of Trullo (which is as decent an Italian restaurant you can get outside Italy) why, she told me that it is because Brits want their pasta dishes drowned in sauce, rather than lightly dressed with it.

In Italy, simple is best. The biggest and most impressive course should always be the first, the antipasto. This is followed by a modest pasta, grain soup or gnocchi, and, if you have room, a secondi consisting of no more than a piece of meat or fish and nothing else on the plate except perhaps a couple of roast potatoes in rosemary. Salad is eaten separately, after the meal. Dessert is an afterthought – perhaps a cantuccini biscuit with a grappa or glass of Vin Santo.

Unless money is no object and you can afford to hop on a plane anytime you fancy a plate of pappardelle in wild boar ragu, check out those serving up specialities from a single region, whether it’s risotto from Veneto, the pesto of Liguria, or the handmade orecchiette of Puglia. In reality, there is no such thing as ‘Italian food’, which goes at least part way to explaining why many restaurants in the UK get it so very, very wrong.