then it hit: the garlic. An assault of still-raw garlic that was harsh, bitter and as brutal as the Battle of Monte Cassino. On and on it went, well into the next day and beyond
For some, the 1970’s is revered as something of a golden age for food, a halcyon interlude of eating and dining out. Certain quarters would have you believe we have recently witnessed a revival of all things seventies-related.
Were it to be true, it would be hard to regard this as anything other than a mawkish exercise in harking back to a time when people were growing up; a nostalgia for a collective, half-remembered and idealised past. The food, really, has nothing to do with it. Nostalgia is in the mind, not on the dinner plate. Take music: it is tempting to think that absolutely everybody was immersing themselves in Dark Side of the Moon on a home stereo system costing more than your house and with quadraphonic sound so luminous it was as if Roger Waters himself was having a breakdown right there in your living room. But then you actually go and watch an old episode of TOTP only to discover that this categorically was not the case.
Pundits as diverse as Alex James and Gregg Wallace are on record as declaring the 1970’s to be a particularly glorious period in our epicurean history. But if we associate just one person with the era then it is obviously Delia Smith. From the minute she appeared as presenter of Family Fare in 1973 Delia, as it is popularly claimed, Taught The Nation How To Cook. Her mannered approach was instructional, her programmes educational as opposed to entertaining. Of eating out in particular, Smith, perhaps somewhat typically, believes that the overall experience was simply “better back then” as chefs served “real food” and were “more in touch with what the public wanted.”
Yet all this fanfare for the common man doesn’t really ring true. “Bring back the buffet table!” is about as appealing a rallying cry as “bring back hanging!” Yet we should not be too quick to discredit Delia Smith. Her influence and authority on all things epicurean is, and continues to be real and genuine: sensible, aspirational, generous. And lest we forget, it was Delia who baked the cake for the album cover of Let It Bleed.
Gregg Wallace on the other hand is the English Defence League of British cooking. He misses the point entirely when bellowing about “the great 1970’s food revival”. Really? Where? A “57% increase in the sale of Chicken Kievs” the Ingredients Expert thunders with no small amount of reactionary pride. He obviously thinks the country has gone to the dogs because nobody is eating spam anymore. And that’s as maybe. Although he neglects to consider that we are floundering in the death throes of a recession deeper than Zaltman’s Metaphor. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies families have spent more on processed convenience food during these straitened times. Mums don’t go to Iceland because they suddenly come over all misty eyed for Showaddywaddy. They do so out of necessity because rocketing prices and falling incomes equate to consumption of the cheapest calories available.
But what were people eating in the 1970’s, and where were they eating it? Well for a start anything that is nowadays cooked in a Balti pan, served Chow Mein or eaten with chips. Add to that pub food: from the unreconstructed, un-tucked shirt and high street aggro of Wetherspoons to the A-road lay-by, beery suicide note that is the Toby Carvery. From Prawn Cocktail and Steak and Chips to Black Forest Gateaux, this is what we eat now. None of it has actually ever gone away. So much for nostalgia and revivalism.
But the biggest innovation of all to come from the 1970’s was the Italian restaurant, or at least its anglicised counterpart. People began holidaying abroad more than ever before initiating a desire for and interest in food from sunnier climes.
Our love of Italian food and the trattoria was born and fast became a staple of many a high street with its check-table clothes, pasta suppers and affordable reds. The Shirley Valentine charm of the trattoria signified something that was at once aspirational and exotic. Really, it is not hard to see why. Practically anything Italian at all, from organised crime to Fascism is capable of sounding alluring; glamorous, even. It is all just clinking glasses on the piazza and endless sunshine. Admittedly this was never going to translate to a high street in Stoke, say, but maybe the food – pizza and pasta, olives and olive oil, and coffee as smooth and as rich as a chauvinist astride a Vespa – could. As writer and blogger Tony Naylor says, “an Italian restaurant was, and is still considered to be the height of sophistication and for many, it feels like a big, glamorous night out.” While more practically, Anglo-Italian is “cheap to make, hard to balls up.”
La Genova on North Audley Street is Mayfair’s oldest Italian restaurant. A local stalwart since 1970 it remains largely unaltered, bright green neon sign out front and all. Owned by Rinaldo Pierini for nigh on 45 years, it was named after his city of birth, the capital of the region of Liguria, that small, bow-shaped province in the north of the country running from the French border down to La Spezia. Aside from a few house specialities that include Minestrone Soup and the regional dish of pasta with pesto, green beans and potatoes, Genovese fare is rather disappointingly not foremost on the menu. Although there is something touchingly naïve and old-fashioned about the way in which their oft-featured pesto is proudly described as ‘home made by the owner himself’.
To start, a steaming bowl of Trofie al Pesto was initially as comforting as only a good pasta dish can be. Like all well-made fresh pasta it was bouncy and velvety with plenty of fresh basil and a good glug of Extra Virgin. Then it hit: the garlic. An assault of still-raw garlic that was harsh, bitter and as brutal as the Battle of Monte Cassino. On and on it went, well into the next day and beyond.
Elsewhere on the menu there was Prawn Cocktail, obviously, and plenty of spaghetti dishes. Various things in breadcrumbs such as scampi, chicken and veal and lots of things cooked in brandy and cream. Salmon Ravioli in a cream sauce was perfectly decent in a non-U, napkins-folded-up-in-wine-glasses sort of way. Of the more Italian-sounding main courses there was Veal Fillet in Marsala. It didn’t taste bad simply because it tasted of very little. But then there was also a nicely comforting veal Osso Bucco which was far better. More of the same, sweet, cloying sauce that seems to accompany all dishes here but the softly caramelised meat fell obligingly from the bone. Every dish also came with the obligatory side plate of mixed veg.
A generous dollop of Tiramisu from the dessert trolley proved to be the high point of the meal. It was a splodge of pure retro dinner party heaven that would have done Delia proud. Superlatively creamy and rich, I clearly envisaged a satiated Michael Winner, all squinty, and gurgling “Marvellous!” “Historic!” And it truly was. Other choices were fresh fruits or ice cream.
I have painted a rather so-so and unexciting picture here but everything about La Genova from the decor to the menu is a genuine, un-ironic, concept-free throwback to a bygone era of dining. It has remained open and well-loved for the best part of half a century and there is no reason to suspect it will not remain so for as long again. There are those who might describe it as Mayfair’s ‘best kept secret’ yet Italian is our de facto restaurant of choice. Figuratively speaking, everyone eats here. The 1970’s may have well shaped, honed and melded our taste buds more than anyone would have imagined, but in this instance at least, nostalgia ain’t quite what it used to be.
32 North Audley Street
Tel: 020 7629 5916