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