A pep­per-pot so high that it reaches the sky: that’s amore

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

20 Old Comp­ton St, Soho, Lon­don W1D 4TW (020 7494 9368). Three cour­ses with wine (or prefer­ably beer) and cof­fee: about

£25 per head

De­spite never hav­ing met this sec­tion’s guest ed­i­tor, I feel fa­mil­iar enough with the work of Mi­randa Hart, whose sit­com is a mas­sive favourite in our house­hold, to take the di­a­bol­i­cal lib­erty of ad­vanc­ing this the­ory. When Ms Hart is­sued an im­pe­rial edict that this re­view must con­cern a de­ter­minedly old-fash­ioned Ital­ian restau­rant, she was act­ing, at least in part, on what I call the Pep­per-Pot Prin­ci­ple.

Noth­ing en­cap­su­lates the cheesy charm of the tra­di­tional trat­to­ria like a pre­pos­ter­ously out­sized wooden pep­per­mill, wielded by a cheek­ily sug­ges­tive waiter coo­ing “bel­lis­sima sig­no­rina…” as he grinds away. Un­der this col­umn’s widely revered Which Blair? clas­si­fi­ca­tion sys­tem, this sub­genre of Ital­ian (loads of schmooz­ing, pow­dered Parme­san, walls fes­tooned by snaps of the beam­ing owner with vis­it­ing celebri­ties) is known as a Lionel. This is in trib­ute, of course, to Lionel Blair, who by dint of his pantomime and hoof­ing trav­els seemed to fea­ture in ev­ery photo of the kind, re­gard­less of lo­ca­tion, ever taken.

Like the guest ed­i­tor, my strong pref­er­ence is for the Lionel’s cos­set­ing warmth over the self­con­scious cool of the more con­tem­po­rary Ital­ian known as the Tony – clin­i­cal, min­i­mal­ist es­tab­lish­ments, like the de­funct Granita, where the som­bre staff wear char­coal grey suits, the Parme­san is shaved, the pep­per­pots are stud­iedly un­phal­lic, and the menu is much more likely to fea­ture pan-fried dodo gizzard with po­lenta in a uni­corn sauce than spaghetti bolog­nese.

Sadly, this has be­come a mi­nor­ity taste. The truly au­then­tic Lionel, with the wick­eren­cased Chi­anti bot­tles hang­ing from the ceil­ing, has dropped out of vogue so com­pletely that, in Lon­don at least, it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to find. But hap­pily the spirit lives on at La Porchetta Pollo. “I haven’t been here for 20 years,” said my friend as we ar­rived at this ven­er­a­ble Soho fix­ture, “and it hasn’t changed a bit. Which can only be a good thing.”

Al­though I thought the same, sub­se­quent re­search re­veals a touch of false-mem­ory syn­drome. Un­til a few years ago, the restau­rant on this site was the leg­endary Pollo Bar, which had fed stu­dents and im­pov­er­ished lo­cals for decades. It was then taken over by a pizza and pasta chain called Porchetta. The man­age­ment had the sense not only to in­cor­po­rate the old name within the new one, but to keep the place much as it was.

The booths have been re­placed by small café ta­bles, and a car­toony mu­ral of a cock­erel and a pig has been painted on to a wall. But the nicotineyel­low paint­work be­hind the pizza area, manned by a young guy wear­ing a base­ball cap back to front, and pos­si­bly dream­ing of wolfwhistling Si­cil­ian girls from the seat of his Vespa (no crude na­tional stereo­typ­ing here) while he the­atri­cally stretched the dough, looks un­touched since the midSix­ties hey­day of the cheap ’n’ cheer­ful Ital­ian caff.

Ex­ceed­ingly cheap and in­fec­tiously cheer­ful it re­mains, and the beguil­ingly nos­tal­gic flavour pro­vided by a ca­pa­cious Great­est Hits menu was re­in­forced by the vi­sion of a hip twen­tysome­thing woman at the next ta­ble read­ing Wuther­ing Heights. Not on a Kin­dle, mind. From a Pen­guin.

Once my friend’s choice of Diet Coke had been vin­di­cated by my glass of an in­de­cently youth­ful Nero D’Avola, a Si­cil­ian red with a bou­quet that could ex­plain the peel­ing paint, the starters ar­rived. “Black pep­per?” asked the wait­ress. Yes, I said, but surely you have a more im­pres­sive pep­per-pot than that silly lit­tle thing? Sup­press­ing the in­stinct to flash her col­leagues the “aye-aye, we’ve a right perv here” face, she went off and re­turned with the Peter Crouch of the cruet world – a wooden ob­ject, two and a half feet tall, that can only be re­tained as a nod to the past and for its comic value.

Both starters needed its con­tents. It would be li­bel­lous to ac­cuse ei­ther com­po­nent of my friend’s pro­sciutto and melon of burst­ing with flavour. But it was fine, and the por­tion de­ment­edly gen­er­ous by any stan­dard other than that set by my stag­ger­ingly tall mound of tuna and beans, topped with raw white onion to ram home the Fresh Breath Spe­cial cre­den­tials. I could not iden­tify the brand of tuna, but the chef, to bor­row from Basil Fawlty, is a ge­nius with a tin-opener.

Some ir­ri­tat­ingly Euro­vi­sion­ish track had given way to Aqua’s Bar­bie Girl (the mu­sic is the one duff note; it should be Dean Martin’s That’s Amore on a loop) when the pasta dishes ar­rived in sim­i­larly ab­surd amounts.

“This is ac­tu­ally very good,” said my friend of his penne arra­bi­ata. “The pasta is just about right, I like the flavour of packet gar­lic chip­pings, and the chilli isn’t too over­pow­er­ing.” I went for the spag bol, which was ex­cel­lent in the com­fort­ingly salty tomato purée­and-basil style, in­evitably mak­ing the de­light­fully pa­tient wait­ress fetch the Eif­fel Tower pep­per-pot again.

Af­ter plough­ing through that lot, and in the per­plex­ing ab­sence of com­pli­men­tary stom­ach pumps, there was no ques­tion of try­ing the tiramisu. But we lin­gered mer­rily over de­cent cof­fee from the bar in the cen­tre of this long, thin, well-lit and shab­bily en­gag­ing room, chat­ting about the Soho of old be­fore it be­came so largely de­porni­fied, when hon­est, art­less, un­pre­ten­tious joints like this one abounded, and when you could stuff your face for 10 bob and have change over for a taxi home.

Such fun!

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