You are in an Italian restaurant when a waiter appears brandishing a giant pepper grinder. The spaghetti carbonara is made with cream and garnished with a sprig of parsley. You suddenly realise that you are not, after all, in the Tuscan hills, but somewhere in the UK.
Is it possible for Italian restaurants in the UK to be authentic? Some of the Greek restaurants in London I’ve eaten in are so much the real deal that I have managed to forget I’m not in Athens. Similarly, some of the Spanish restaurants – such as those on Portobello Road – are indistinguishable from those in Spain, except for the weather and the smoking. But I have never found a good enough replica of an Italian restaurant in the UK, from the tiny neighbourhood joint to the Michelin-starred destination restaurant.
Let’s take the ingredients. I know many Italians who will not touch a tomato in the UK, let alone serve one. In the winter, Italian chefs in Tuscany use polpa, finally chopped and skinned tomatoes canned within hours of being harvested, which taste and smell just like fresh ones. Only such brands as Cirio or Mutti are acceptable; no serious chef in Italy would dream of using substandard tomatoes to make a sauce.
Not so in the UK. I remember visiting what is supposedly one of the best Italian restaurants in Glasgow, a city with a large Italian population. I ordered bruschetta – a simple but delicious antipasto of grilled bread on which a cut clove of garlic is rubbed before it gets drizzled with fruity olive oil and topped with very ripe, deseeded, roughly chopped tomatoes. A dish that should taste of sunshine. Sadly, the pale, underripe offering I was served tasted of a too-cold fridge.