I grew up in south-west London in the 1970s when Italian restaurants had exposed brick walls and paper tablecloths in red and white squares and giant pepper pots and were owned by people called Franco who slapped your father on the back. The lasagne came in individual dishes, oozing deep red tomato sauce so hot it stuck to the edges of the dish and burnt your tongue. You cried the first time, but not again, because you loved Spaghetti Junction more than your own home. The perfect Italian restaurant was fixed for me then, in 1979, and that was it, because restaurants are about joy, not food.
And so I never liked their high-street descendants: Carluccio’s and Jamie’s Italian. The first was too pale and interesting, and the second too sloppy and disinterested. I have eaten in many West End Italian restaurants. They are too suave for me. They are too French. It is all wrong.
Pucci opened last year in Maddox Street, off Savile Row, and it has the potential to ruin every dress shirt there with a happy tomato rainbow. It is a pastiche of every neighbourhood Italian restaurant from every childhood — but particularly Pucci Pizza in Chelsea, which had a famous clientele because famous people, including Rod Stewart, were not always too frightened to eat carbohydrates. (Have you ever seen Michael Caine eat a finger sandwich? I have. It was genuinely clandestine.)
Pucci Pizza closed in 2010 after 30 years and employing Sophie Dahl as a waitress. Its owner was Giuseppe ‘Pucci’ Albanese, and his son Rufus has made Pucci. He used to name salads after his girlfriends. It’s easy to laugh, but I would do the same. Now he has named a restaurant after his father. He gave an interview in which he said that Mayfair is the new Chelsea. I have no idea what that even means.
I arrive at seven after driving a Rolls-Royce Wraith around Goodwood racetrack like a mad dentist, and I am as high as I get without drugs. Pucci is empty and inviting. It’s the easy listening music. Sometimes I think that is what is wrong with Isis. They don’t have enough Dean Martin in their lives. Sit anywhere, says the waiter, which is what I like to hear.
It’s on the corner of Maddox Street and Mill Street. I can see the back of St George’s Church, Hanover Square, through the huge windows. It’s Vogue’s church, I guess, and Vogue would approve of this restaurant’s decor. There is exposed brick and wooden tables; lurid paintings in hot pink to remind us it isn’t really 1979; big red pepper pots, which I gaze at, grasping backwards to Spaghetti Junction and my innocence; a long bar.
My friends arrive. One is a lawyer. He drinks like Prometheus, a man set free. The waiter is perplexed when my other friend, a novelist, rants about dating, and I am tempted to give him Caroline Criado Perez’s feminist polemic Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, for he would surely excuse a man ranting about dating while eating garlic pizza. But he looks scared enough already.
The garlic pizza is marvellous. The burrata is likewise excellent but it looks slightly lonely on its own. The spaghetti arrabbiata — they substituted spaghetti for penne, bless them — was only adequate. I would turn to the Coffee Cup in Hampstead for the definitive version. The tuna, says the novelist, is ‘horrible’. But I can forgive any restaurant that plays easy listening at two minutes to midnight. Come to Pucci, eat garlic pizza and drink house red until you are so drunk you know the backstop is a chair.