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
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.