The death of the wonderful Antonio Carluccio last week and my visit this week to the European Pizza and Pasta show at Olympia have got me pondering why we love food from Italy so much.
I’ve no idea how many Italian restaurants there are in Britain, but it must be several thousand. The Italians got into the restaurant business in Britain long before the Indians and Chinese.
And in recent years we have seen the rise of excellent Italian chains – Ask, Carluccios, Franca Manca, to name but three. And Jamie has even got in on the act.
If you’ve been to Italy, you’ll know that Italian cuisine is, of course, much more than pizza and pasta. I visited Sorrento a couple of years ago and was knocked out by the range and quality of dishes in its restaurants.
And we probably shouldn’t even talk about “Italian” cuisine, as in Italy food is regional. The kind of dishes they serve in Bologna will be different from those in Naples, the birthplace of pizza.
Pizza has to be the most popular dish in Britain. I know that some people argue that chicken tikka masala occupies that spot, but when do you ever hear kids asking for a curry when you take them out?
The reason pizza is popular is because it’s incredibly satisfying and so varied. If you think about it, it’s basically bread with various toppings. And bread is popular wherever you go in the world, the flat breads in the Middle East, nan breads in India, baguettes in France, tortillas in Mexico. It can also be eaten in the street. It’s classic finger food.
At the European Pizza and Pasta Show, I got chatting to a woman from The Pizza, Pasta and Italian Food Association and asked her what she thought was the secret to the popularity of Italian cuisine in Britain. ‘With Italian food, they don’t go in for novelty or gimmicks. They serve the same dishes again and again,’ she said.
She is spot on. In a London food scene that seems to get whackier every month, and where restaurants are desperate to make themselves appear different and innovative, you know exactly where you are with most Italian restaurants. What people want is good food and good service at a reasonable price. What they don’t want is the kind of foodie circus we now have in London. Unsurprisingly, Antonio Carluccio was not a fan of this kind of nonsense.
Last night I went to a typical local Italian, II Mirto, tucked away in a side street in East Dulwich. The owner, who is from Sardinia, also runs an Italian deli down the road in Forest Hill. II Mirto seats just 22 diners and feels almost like eating in someone’s living room. Oh, yes, and they only take cash, as the handwritten notice on the counter informs you. The menu is pizzas, pasta and a couple of specials. There’s nothing pretentious or fancy about this place and the food is very decent. That’s why I like it.