La bella cucina: how Italian food got cool again
Italian food has been overlooked in recent years, in favour of upscale fast food or cuisines from further afield. But the old Saturday-night staple is fighting back
Italian food in Britain has been a victim of its own success. Pizza and pasta chains dominate the high street. Your local checked-tablecloth joint has been the venue for every 18th birthday celebration and standard first date for decades. It’s over 20 years since a young Jamie Oliver started tearing up basil leaves and adding pukka mozzarella to everything. Italian food is familiar and tasty. In the restaurant, there might even be candles on the tables. It’s safe, but it’s not groundbreaking.
But, recently, the number of Italian restaurants opening has accelerated. Sharply. Jason Atherton’s Hai Cenato is the centrepiece of the new Nova development in London’s Victoria. It’s Italian. High-end Margot opened its doors in Covent Garden. Marco Pierre White has opened Marco’s New York Italian in Leeds. Indie pizza places, from classic Neapolitan to sourdough single-slice sellers, abound all over the country.
Chef Francesco Mazzei, whose new trattoria Radici has just opened in Islington, north London, acknowledges that there was a problem with the more traditional set-up: “I believe that 10 years ago, most people viewed Italian cuisine as fairly one-dimensional”.
In many places, the traditional décor has had a shake-up. The red checked tablecloths and comically massive pepper grinders have been cast aside in favour of industrial décor or marble-effect tabletops and Oliver Bonas-style rose gold cutlery at restaurants like the aforementioned Margot, or Wolf in Stoke Newington, London, and Manchester’s favourite Neopolitan pizza joint, Rudy’s.
The menus have modernised, too. Small-plates menus first broke out of the Spanish-tapas-only bracket into Italian food with the opening of Polpo. An instant hit, offering sample-sized dishes meant being able to showcase Italian cooking beyond just pizza and pasta to critical acclaim, including a Bib Gourmand in the Michelin Guide. And it wasn’t long before the imitations started.
In many ways, though, nothing has really changed for Italian cooking. It’s that our tastes have evolved around it. Italian cooks in Italy are religious about using the best ingredients, meaning menus vary as foods go in and out of season. Russell Norman, founder of Polpo, says: “The defining quality of Italian cooking is simplicity. Italian cuisine abides by the K.I.S.S. rule (keep it simple, stupid!) Quality of ingredient is the most important consideration.” A focus on sustainability and obsession with seasonal produce has revolutionised the UK dining scene in the past few years, and Italian food just happens to fit the bill.
We’re fussier now and our options are greater. So if you’re going to be doing pizza, it needs to be The Best Pizza in the World, as the manic opening of L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele in London proved this year. Classic renditions of comfort food can definitely be cool. Padella, a pasta restaurant in London’s Borough Market made nearly every critics’ best new openings of 2016 list, and the similarly single-minded Pasta Loco in Bristol is also hugely popular.
There’s still room for the old guard though. There’s an Italian round the corner from the Emerald Street offices called Ciao Bella. It’s been there since 1983. We go there for more or less every reason you would go out for a meal at work: welcome lunches, team birthdays, leaving dos. It’s a true ‘classic’ Italian: breadsticks on the table when you arrive, the pasta comes with an equal amount of parmesan heaped on top, a pianist plays in the evening, and so on. It’s an institution, and that’s the joy of the place. But part of this joy comes from the fact it is one of many Italian restaurants, rather than simply the norm.