Category Archives: restaurants

Why is pizza so popular?


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.


Running a pop-up kitchen

Passion on a Plate greg wide 1Passion on a Plate tapas sign

“Croquetas de jamon ready for table three!” I barked in my best Spanish pronunciation, sliding a dish to to my wife. “Padron peppers in two minutes.”

It was eight thirty on a Saturday night at Beer Rebellion, a small bar in Sydenham, specialising in craft beers brewed down the road in Penge. And I was running my first pop-up kitchen, providing nine tapas dishes under the name of Passion on a Plate.

When I had got up early that morning to make four tortillas before heading to a Crystal Palace bakery to collect five loaves of sour dough bread, I had been filled with a mixture of anxiety and excitement.  Would the electric cooker at Beer Rebellion work okay?  I had tested it the week before and discovered that some rings took a while to heat up? How would I cope if I had to prepare or cooking several dishes at once? Would the customers like what I served? Yet despite these worries, I was raring to go.

And an hour and a half into the service, I was loving every minute of cooking for paying customers. Standing there in the kitchen, wearing a chef’s jacket and white apron and hat, I was feeling like a proper cook. I was even becoming incredibly bossy with my wife. “No! The customers only need a small slice of quince with the cheese.” I had watched too many episodes of Hell’s Kitchen.

Passion on a Plate diners

This pop-up might never have happened had I not attended several cooking classes at Leith’s. They not only gave me some knowledge and techniques, but, just as importantly, they boosted my confidence and helped to demystify the process of cooking.

The class that was perhaps most valuable to me was the one taught by the charismatic Omar Allibhoy, who came to London from Madrid to persuade more of us to eat tapas.  I bought his book, Tapas Revolution, afterwards, and I had used some of his recipes for my menu at Beer Rebellion.

I later interviewed Omar for my book Ole! Ole! Passion on a Plate: The Rise of Spanish Cuisine in London. And, looking back, it was meeting him, and other inspiring Spanish chefs and owners of Spanish restaurants, that led me to answer the post from Beer Rebellion on my local community forum: “Want to run a pop-up kitchen? Come and speak to us.”

So I did. The manager, a laid back Kiwi, wasn’t concerned that I had never run a pop-up kitchen and he said tapas would go down well with the customers.

Once I had fixed a date, I then had to decide on a menu. I knew I was plunging into the deep end.  Cooking at home is one thing; cooking in a bar is something else.  But I felt this was a challenge I was ready for.

Passion on a Plate food cu 2

Recognising my lack of experience, I sought advice from Raffaele, the owner of Trattoria Raffaele, the fantastic Italian restaurant in my local high street, and Jorge, a chef at Barrica, a top West End tapas bar.  “Keep the menu simple and short,” they both urged.  So I decided to include five cold dishes and four hot.

I would make the tortilla, jamon croquetas, and sauce for the patas bravas in advance. This would mean that on the night I would only be cooking padron peppers and potatoes from scratch.  I felt this was achievable.

Running your first pop-up kitchen requires military planning.  You have to price your dishes; work out portion sizes; find good suppliers for your ingredients; think about what kitchen equipment (in my case a deep fat fryer, slow cooker, and toaster), crockery and cutlery you will need and how big the fridge is to store dishes made in advance.

As well as this, you have to work out how you are going to use the space in the kitchen to arrange your ingredients and plate up. You also have to design a menu, provide a spike for the tickets the orders are written on, have a good supply of tea towels, and bring a bottle of hand wash.

Adding special touches to the evening can help create an atmosphere. My wife bought red and yellow carnations for each table and placed them in the set of small glass jars I had spotted in a charity shop. She also bought some sunflower plants, which we arranged on the ledge of the kitchen, wooden boards to serve the iberico ham, and red and yellow napkins.

In the three weeks leading up to the pop-up, I practiced cooking the dishes. My attempts at creating a good alioli were disappointing. When the mixture kept splitting, my wife suggested I buy a ready made one. But this would have seemed like cheating, So I continued experimenting and, eventually, I got there (thanks to a Jamie Oliver recipe on You Tube).

I felt such a sense of achievement when I slumped down with my wife at the end of the evening at Beer Rebellion.  We had served 49 dishes, and all had returned empty. I was still on a high the next day.

And now we are going to run a weekly tapas night in the bar.




Raffaele’s trattoria in Sydenham


Raffaelle with his wife Emily and daughter Sophie

Raffaelle with his wife Emily and daughter Sophie

I’m delighted to hear that Raffaele’s Trattoria in Sydenham high street has been voted best restaurant in London on Trip Advisor.  Ever since moving to Sydenham, I’ve always loved going to Raffaele’s.

When you walk in, it’s like being transported to some small Italian village. On the walls are old Italian film posters, photos of the restaurant in the 1970s when it first opened, an early menu, along with a map of Italy with towns and cities marked by corks from wine bottles. With a capacity for only around 40 diners, it has a warm, intimate feel.

And it goes without saying that the food is fantastic.  The pizzas and pasta dishes are classic Italian, bursting with flavour and made with fresh ingredients. On Sunday when my wife and I went, I had the Antonio pizza (chorizo, peppered peppers, and red onions) and she had pork belly from the daily specials list. Both dishes were absolutely fantastic.

But it’s not just the food that draws me to Raffaele’s. It’s the atmosphere and hospitality, which is largely down to Raffaele himself, a former professional golfer who took over the restaurant from  his father in 2008.  Nothing is ever too much trouble for him or his obliging staff.  He even had his chef make my son a pizza in the shape of Batman.

Every time I go to Raffaele’s I always remark to my wife how at home I feel.  When it comes to running a restaurant, Raffaele definitely has all the right ingredients.


Why aren’t restaurants more child friendly?

Why aren’t more restaurants child friendly?  I asked myself this question after a visit to Ask Italian, near Tower Bridge.

The Ask Italian chain does everything to try and help parents who have lively and easily bored small children in tow.  It provides colouring pens and spot the difference pictures, small knives and forks, and highchairs and baby changing facilities. It even serves children’s meals first and on cold plates, so they don’t get their fingers burned.

As well as this, the waiting staff at Ask are always very tuned in to the needs  and fickleness of children.  They don’t freak out when a child starts banging the salt cellar on the table or spills orange juice on the floor.

Yet this kind of focus on the needs of children and families is still very much the exception rather than the rule in many restaurants I’ve visited.  Given that, at least during the day, there’s a good chance that families as much as couples or groups are going to be coming through the door, you would have thought owners and managers would have cottoned on. It’s pretty basic.

In contrast, in countries such as Spain or Italy you generally find restaurants are far more geared up to children.

I suspect that the reason that so many restaurants don’t adapt to children is that they don’t really want them there. Either that or they are too blinkered or lazy to do anything to make the experience more enjoyable for them, and their parents.

Yet, as McDonald’s discovered a long time ago, there’s money to be made in being child friendly.  If you make yourself more friendly to children, then you make yourself more friendly to their parents.