Friday, August 6, 2010

Alice in Chain Restaurants

Frequent trips back to London serve to sharpen my perspective of the Eternal city less I become inclined to regard its haunting beauty and sanguine chaos as commonplace in every capital.  Before a summer trip back, my general disposition is of one who has just been called up for jury service and dragged off the set of an episode of Jeux sans Frontieres, c 1974.  As I change out of my bikini and begin the hunt for my driving licence, my mood lightens as I start to scribble a mental shopping list in my mind: Fortumn and Mason’s Smoky Earl Grey Tea, Frank Cooper’s Vintage Oxford Orange Marmalade, Marks and Spencer's egg and watercress sandwiches. Clearly I’m all about the food.

I sigh at the prospect of eating pseudo-Italian food in London where the spread of  fake Italian chain restaurants is endemic.  On the plane, I wonder how many new cases will have sprung up in my absence.  Once, a London economist told me that such chain restaurants had indeed improved the quality of the restaurant industry.  Maybe what he meant to say is they have bumped up profitability and encouraged an alarming proportion of the English middle class to try and order  “Broooshetta” (The correct pronunciation of “bruschetta” is “brusketta”).  In reality, these places have very little to do with the "magic of Italy" but as far as marketing works on the English, yesterday’s newspapers would still fly off the shelves today if clearly labelled “Authentic Italian”,  whatever that might mean.  One chain thinks it means offering Piaggio Vespa scooters for sale on the dessert menu, for around £2000 a pop and that's one of the more authentic ones.  In Rome the secret of "Authentic Italian" is seasonal, fresh, simple food.  Cappuccino is drunk until 11 a.m. not upsold to wash down a pizza at 11 p.m. Pesto is served with fresh trofie, not slapped across the pert breast of a bewildered chicken. And not even a first generation Roman could identify a garlic dough ball even if Roma’s star striker Francesco Totti possessed the artistry required to score a goal with one.

During my recent trip back to London, the air was buzzing with compliments for the latest “Authentic Italian" chain restaurant to open.  The latest strain of this epidemic is called “Fifteen” and chief mutant in the kitchen is known to all in Blighty as Jamie Oliver, a.k.a. “The Naked Chef” - why "naked" I don’t know but if the Romans saw his addition of double cream and thyme to his carbonara recipe they would surely strip him naked and dump him by the Tiber.  That said, his menus look creative and his policy of employing only young chefs and installing his passion for food into them is inspiring. For this reason alone I will make a point of visiting one next time I'm back; I'm curious to see the dimensions of the "GIANT green olives from Puglia" on offer.  Maybe I'll even slay a few with a chilled glass of prosecco in the coming days as I'm off to Salento in Puglia tomorrow. In the meantime, my advice to the Naked Chef:  Put your clothes back on and keep it simple!

Photo credit: Keeping the bill simple by Josie Ochej

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TO POSTS VIA FEED. Ice cream's on me in Rome!