La Genova

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.

Opinion: 5/10

La Genova
32 North Audley Street
London
W1K 6ZG

Tel: 020 7629 5916
Website: http://www.lagenovarestaurant.com

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Cibo!

one occasion you will have just about the most dreamily perfect forest mushroom ravioli, the next you will be served calamari that resemble knicker elastic

Name some things that Oxford lacks and you might, for instance, come up with a decent shopping centre that isn’t a ghastly and outdated monument to post-war town planning. Have you been to the Westgate Centre and its environs of late? It is genuinely difficult to think of a more unattractive place, both inside and out. It is full of people aimlessly shuffling from Poundland to Shoe Zone just because that’s all there is to do on a Saturday. Or any other day for that matter.

You might just as well suggest a town centre road system that isn’t a chaotic mess. Does anybody actually understand the reasoning behind the road layout at Frideswide Square by the railway station? Who does it actually benefit? Certainly neither road user nor pedestrian.

In fact, that vast swathe of Oxford city centre bookended by Park End Street at the railway station over to the west and Thames Street where it joins St. Aldates towards the south is singularly dismal: nothing but a metropolitan wasteland, at once empty yet full. Full of concrete and car parks, ring roads and blocks of flats; empty of promises. Everything is fifty shades of grey. Although these particular hues would be more akin to a quick feel up by the bins round the back of Netto.

And what of Queen Street? The main pedestrian thoroughfare is also found oddly wanting. Apart from a few mobile phone shops and, curiously, two branches of Prêt about 150 yards from each other, I doubt it has changed much since the 1970’s. This is in fact an accusation that can be levelled at all of central Oxford thanks to one man. The place has remained in a state of cryogenic stagnation since 1972 to be exact; this, the date when Douglas Murray’s Westgate Centre opened its doors to the world. All you ever seem to see from the city’s south western urban wilderness is the arse end of the Westgate. You, like me, no doubt consider this man to be singlehandedly responsible for ruining an entire town. And you, like me, should never forgive him for it.

I suppose all this makes Oxford sound about as welcoming as nearby Aylesbury or Swindon. And it would be were it not for several world class museums and that famous thing that has been there since 1096.

Universitas Oxoniensis. Ever since Henry II threw a strop and banned the newest intake of freshers from going on the lash to Paris (or something), and a bunch of students received a sound thrashing from some knuckle draggers down the pub then promptly ran off to open their own university up in the Fenlands (or whatever), the city has not really been ‘just a city’. Yes it still manages to have all the crappy municipal bits as well, like random violence and branches of Costa, but Oxford proper – the real, genuine, bona fide Oxford is its university campi. Most university cities are the other way around. Oxford is its university. Gown totally rules. Luckily, Murray didn’t get round to messing up the likes of the Radcliffe Camera or Tom Quad, or erecting a multi-storey in the gardens at Trinity.

Civic issues aside, another thing that Oxford lacks is a truly first-rate Italian restaurant. You know what I mean: that splendid, cosy, friendly, little neighbourhood joint that is intimate, has been there for aeons, has checked table cloths, does steaming bowls of pasta and a bloody lovely house red, while the moustachioed Maître D. who looks like Go Compare Man hovers with a giant pepper grinder.

Cibo! is in the more salubrious, leafier Summertown end of the city and might be a contender for the title of first-rate neighbourhood Italian. Might be…

You walk in and the interior is bright and spacious: contemporary with clean, straight lines. No cosy nooks and dim lights (or moustachioed Maître D, thank god). The neighbourhood aspect of Cibo! Is its main selling point. Open around the clock, you can drop by for coffee from 10am while food is served from 12 ‘til late. Local and passing trade is therefore always brisk. Booking therefore essential at weekends. The menu is home to the habitual staples of British-Italian high street gastronomy: a selection of appetisers, pastas and pizzas, along with seafood and grill dishes.

Right off the bat some calamari is too much like knicker elastic with a vaguely piscine aftertaste. Luckily their freshly made pasta is much better. A wild mushroom ravioli is a dream: impressively well made with a full-on deep and meaty sauce. The linguine vongole, that timeless staple of trattorias and Italian mummy’s boys the world over is another classic that is done admirably here, its pasta maintaining a pleasing al dente bite.

Main courses are so-so. Tagliata steak was decent, saltimbocca alla Romana was not, and not at all like the real thing, the classic version of the dish made from veal wrapped in Parma Ham, sage, then cooked in butter and Marsala wine. A decree passed down from the Roman gods of gastronomy maintains a Saltimbocca can only be a Saltimbocca if it contains both sage and prosciutto. This failed on both counts. Three in fact as it was made from pork. It was a dismal effort: its meat was little more than some bedraggled streaks of emaciated bacon, or perhaps the ears of a starved dog. Still, at least the Marsala sauce was good.

A blackboard special of seared tuna and rosemary potatoes arrived with half of it not actually on the plate. Between kitchen and table, either the chef or waiter mislaid the potatoes. When asked, the waiter breezily brushed the matter aside with a wave of the hands and offered bread instead. Business picked up with puddings. Homemade gelato nocciola (hazelnut ice cream) was delightful as was their affogato. Like so many of life’s foremost pleasures, this Italian classic is effortlessly simple. And you cannot get much more Italian than that.

Cibo! makes for a decent local Italian. It is as much café as it is restaurant and is there for student pizzas or Barollo-soaked blow out lunches. It can also be maddeningly inconsistent. Eh, that is a bit harsh. It is a local place and it is fine. Vivi e lascia vivere and all that. So Oxford remains on the lookout for that truly first-rate neighbourhood Italian then. Cibo! is probably the nearest thing to it.

Opinion: 7/10

Cibo!

4 South Parade

Oxford

OX2 7JL

Tel: 01865 292321

Website: http://www.ilovecibo.co.uk