Deck the halls with bantz and bread­sticks

TA­BLE FOR TWO It could try harder – but this splurgy Ital­ian makes peo­ple happy, says Keith Miller MICATTO £ 100 7/ 10

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - The Sunday Cook -

And so to his­toric War­wick, its bat­tle­ments bristling like a kingly crown on the banks of the Avon, its an­tique shops groan­ing un­der the weight of seven coun­ties and three cen­turies’ worth of ce­ramic know-how, its streets thick­eted with more half-tim­ber­ing than you could shake a stick at, its towns­folk, sleek and snug in their light­weight gilets on this un­sea­son­ably warm day, look­ing, in gen­eral, pretty happy with their lot.

We’d trav­elled on the Chiltern rail­way, a ser­vice that, de­spite hav­ing given its rolling stock a com­pre­hen­sive 21st-cen­tury re­fit, re­tains a cer­tain quaint retro charm – much more so, some­how, than the dead-eyed dis­as­ter cap­i­tal­ists of the GWR, with its Keep Calm and Carry On ty­pog­ra­phy and its Fa­mous Five pas­tiche ads. At any rate the Wi-fi more or less works, a phe­nom­e­non of van­ish­ing scarcity on our na­tion’s rail­ways.

Our des­ti­na­tion was Micatto, a well-liked lo­cal Ital­ian restau­rant, serv­ing tra­di­tional trat­to­ria crowd­pleasers in a stylish, and, as far as one could tell from the web­site, faintly in­dus­trial-look­ing space op­po­site the town mu­seum. But a re­furb ear­lier this year has di­alled down the in­dus­trial vibe: a few tiles are still vis­i­ble, but they’ve fes­tooned the cor­nices with swathes of dried hops, and decked ev­ery avail­able hor­i­zon­tal sur­face with a ver­i­ta­ble har­vest fes­ti­val of fake fruit and veg.

The over­all ef­fect, we thought, was not un­pleas­ing, es­pe­cially when com­bined with sturdy, old-school table­ware and napery, all weakly aglow in the pale win­ter sun­light that bathed our win­dow­side ta­ble.

Our servers were, or seemed to be, Ital­ian (though a friend of mine used to pre­tend to be French in the early Nineties, when he worked at the Cri­te­rion Brasserie in Pic­cadilly Cir­cus; he said the tips were bet­ter). The et­y­mol­ogy of the name, though, is ob­scure – or at least it was to me.

Le bon­heur écrit à l’en­cre blanche sur des pages blanches, wrote Henry de Mon­ther­lant – hap­pi­ness writes in white ink on white pages. Philip Larkin was fond of quot­ing this when asked why his po­ems were so mis­er­able. If I say our lunch con­tained nei­ther alarms nor sur­prises – that we or­dered, con­sumed and more or less with­out ex­cep­tion en­joyed a long suc­ces­sion of ex­pertly pre­pared re­gional Ital­ian dishes; that in­gre­di­ents were fresh and lib­er­ally strewn with fra­grant, justchopped herbs; that sauces were light but ro­bust, with no hint of flouri­ness or puck­er­ing skin; that the only crit­i­cism I could even be­gin to make of our food was a panna cotta that flumped when it might have jig­gled – I know I risk damn­ing Micatto with faint praise.

Yet my sausage ravi­oli in a pool of just-re­duced-enough arra­bi­ata sauce was a tri­umph of craft, a lit­tle hymn to rus­tic tra­di­tion that I hope any of Lon­don’s new hotly praised pasta joints would be proud to serve. Calves’ liver was pink and ten­der. Ge­noese-style scal­lops were drib­bled with good pesto and swiftly blasted in the oven. A green salad had very lightly steamed green veg thrown in for body and bite.

There were some mis­steps along the way. That fauxnu­copia of plas­tic pro­duce sig­nalled a cer­tain sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to cheesi­ness and cliché ( bread­sticks, gra­tu­itous namechecks for Harry’s Bar). The use­ful and in­for­ma­tive de­vice of spec­i­fy­ing which re­gion dif­fer­ent dishes had orig­i­nated from wasn’t al­ways ap­plied with ab­so­lute rigour – plus it made us wish that the oc­ca­sional less well-known re­gional dish had been in­cluded, to tempt pun­ters away from the fa­mil­iar – ar­rosticini, say, thin skew­ers of crispy grilled lamb from Abruzzo, or sweet-and-sour rab­bit from Si­cily.

But go­ing out to lunch shouldn’t just be a home­work as­sign­ment (even if there’s never a good rea­son not to learn some­thing). As we sat there, the shad­ows length­ened out­side and the gilded let­ter­ing across the win­dow took on a fiery warmth. We re­alised that the place was fill­ing up. By the time we were get­ting ready to leave, there were two large par­ties and a smat­ter­ing of two­somes in the small­ish room, neck­ing prosecco and or­der­ing up a storm, sum­mon­ing plate­fuls of steam­ing pasta and salt-baked sea bass, shut­tle­cock­ing bantz across the ta­ble and pos­i­tively throb­bing with bon­homie.

In the lo­cal ecol­ogy, we de­cided, Micatto serves as a place for a cheeky splurge or im­promptu all-dayer (the peo­ple at the ta­ble next to us were off to see Sarah Mil­li­can at the Arts Cen­tre that evening, and they didn’t look as if they were go­ing home first). It’s very much of a type – they’re not all Ital­ian, but a lot of them are – cen­tral lo­ca­tion in an af­flu­ent, small­ish town; not quite great, but solidly good; not quite lux­u­ri­ous, but ex­pan­sive and cel­e­bra­tory; and as rooted in the com­mu­ni­ties they serve as so many stout-hearted oaks.

Yet I worry for Micatto, and for all the places like it up and down the coun­try. The “hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment” pol­icy has al­ready done mor­tal harm to our In­dian, Pak­istani and Bangladeshi restau­rants; fur­longs of red tape for ex­ist­ing EU mi­grants and an earn­ings thresh­old for new ones will be a punch in the face for our Ital­ian ones. And okay, there were Ital­ian restau­rants in Bri­tain be­fore the Treaty of Rome; there just weren’t very many good ones, so far as one can tell. And no, you don’t have to be Ital­ian to cook good Ital­ian food (though let’s just say that it doesn’t hurt).

So maybe it’s be­side the point to say we en­joyed Micatto, and noted the good time ev­ery­one seemed to be hav­ing there, but we wished it had been a shade more am­bi­tious. Maybe this is a time to bat­ten down the hatches. It’s not just the big names, the Jamie Oliv­ers and the By­rons, that are feel­ing the pinch out there.

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