Less would have been more

Giorgio Locatelli eschews faux-rusticity and makes the case for a refined Italian cuisine, but his Locanda Locatelli fails to hit the spot

Lisa Hilton

Locanda Locatelli: Expensive, formal, but fails to hit the spot (©Locanda Locatelli)

If you’re one of those people who uses others’ taste in books as a gauge of romantic viability, here’s a useful piece of advice. Ladies, don’t trust an adult male who claims Hemingway is a genius. It’s not the prose. The prose is fine. If you like short sentences. It’s the inevitability that a man who loves Hemingway isn’t enamoured of the terse iteration of American Modernism, but the life. The swagger, the dead rhinos, the dubious interest in matadors, the margaritas. Because Papa was such a tremendous, tortured old fraud — as Martha Gellhorn observed when she waded waist-deep through the Normandy waves on D-day while her then husband cowered on the troop ship — that any man over 15 who professes to admire him will prove to be (in the word of another writer whom no one past adolescence should decently admire) a phoney. Ergo — not bad on the page, lousy between the sheets.

In contrast, however, inauthenticity in food is something we’re not righteous about, and there’s a rather wonderful risotto they do at the Gritti Palace in Venice, imaginatively named Risotto Hemingway, which makes me feel positively benevolent towards the old shyster. It’s a travesty of a risotto — finished with cream and stiff as a picador’s lance — but, jewelled with pearly langoustine from the lagoon and cocked with a magnificently macho specimen, claws still attached, it is delicious enough to make the pontoon, if not the earth, move beneath you.

Giorgio Locatelli is not, I imagine, a man who would allow cream anywhere near his risotti. He is rightly lauded in both the UK and his native Italy as one of the most accomplished chefs of his generation, and  his Michelin-starred Locanda Locatelli has been a stalwart of the London scene since 2002. Mr Locatelli eschews the faux-rusticity which bedevils much imported Italian cooking, even in its latest abominable incarnation, “il street food”, instead making a case for a refined Italian cuisine whose construction and presentation is every bit as elaborate as dishes which might emerge from a conventionally French kitchen.

The purity and clarity of flavour upon which Italian food prides itself are in his hands elevated to a more sophisticated level of gastronomy, and as someone who would gladly never again eat a piece of toast smeared with bland baccala which ponces about calling itself a cicchetto I say hurrah to that — and yet. A recent visit to the Locanda dismally failed to hit the spot.

First they did the thing with the olive oil. My Sicilian companion was bemused by this. Italians don’t actually spend a lot of time dipping their bread in oil: it is a Californian, not a Mediterranean fashion. You dip your bread in oil when you have bugger all else to eat, not when you’re paying for a linen tablecloth. The Americans thought it was “authentic” to the extent that they even serve oil with focaccia (already laden with it), and the trend has woefully made its way back to its purported homeland — even the Gritti are at it. The bread was excellent, especially a roast garlic and grape-must variation; it simply didn’t need the oil.

My first course of roast quail, contrasted with leaves of dark radicchio and a lovely crostino made with the little bird’s liver was good, if a little heavy on the demi-glace. Our other starter, an artichoke and parmesan salad, was acceptable but dull, whilst the first of our primi piatti, gnocchi with fresh shaved black truffle, was disappointing. It’s quite hard to render fresh truffle disappointing, but the gnocchi were overcooked and flabby, and the truffle oil which I suspect had been added to the sauce to boost the rather measly shavings lent them an unpleasantly tinny flavour.

My pizzocheri — a sturdy mountain dish of thick buckwheat pasta with cabbage and melted cheese — was decent comfort food, but not as good as my ex-mother-in-law’s version.

None of this was helped along by my poor choice of wine, a Montefalco Sagrantino 2008. Sagrantino is quite a rare grape, particularly high in tannin, which when drunk at the right moment can have a wonderfully chocolatey resonance and a fantastic smoothness over the palate. This was not the right moment. It smoothed out a bit in the glass, but remained stubbornly bitter and closed. My fault for choosing it, but at £131 per bottle what was the sommelier doing putting it on the list if it wasn’t ready for drinking?

So we were grumpy when the secondi arrived, but that’s no excuse. My calves’ kidneys were displayed in the same sliced fan as the quail and slopping in so much demi-glace they tasted almost identical too. On the menu their accompaniment was described as purée and lentils, which I had imagined meant a delicate dab of each, but no, the deep brown reduction spilled into about half a kilo of stewed pulses which in turn seeped into a huge dollop of potato. I’m normally a woman prepared to live on the edge where carbohydrates are concerned, but this amount of starch defeated even me. The purée was classic Joel Robuchon maximum-butter-to-spud, and jolly nice with it, but the quantity was overwhelming and the coarseness of the lentils did nothing for either party. My friend’s rabbit with pancetta was worthy enough, but again, a lumbering hand with the reduction meant that if one closed one’s eyes it wasn’t entirely apparent who had ordered what. We’d also ordered some zucchini fries in a nominal gesture to health, and they were fine, just like the ones you get at Byron. Pudding at this stage was beyond us.

Locanda Locatelli is an expensive, formal restaurant, firmly established at the top end of the market. Nothing we had was terrible, but it should be a lot better than this — more accomplished, more thoughtful, more supple. Sticking to the classics doesn’t mean one should feel stuck in them, and this dinner felt both tired and lazy. With typical modesty, Hemingway once observed that, as a writer,  “I am as bad as the worst, but thank God, I am as good as the best.” On the present showing, neither part of the statement applies to Locatelli.

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