Tuesday, 3 December 2013
We started, as you often do, with a selection of house breads. In most Italian restaurants in London - probably in most Italian restaurants in Italy, although I can't pretend to have been to an exhaustive number of them - the house bread is the first thing that passes your lips. It is a barometer for what is to come, an early indication of whether the people responsible for your pending meal really have a grip on what they're doing and if their attention to detail reaches into every corner of what they do.
I don't think I've ever had a faultless selection of house breads from an Italian restaurant. They're not very often awful, just usually some combination of stale, soggy, underseasoned, overseasoned, cold or otherwise mediocre. Maybe they're going for quantity over quality - why offer just one house bread done incredibly well and warmed to order (they probably think) instead of five or six forgettable options in different sizes and shapes? Surely that's what the public want?
Well, it's not what I want. I'd take a single solitary square of good, bouncy, fresh focaccia over any number of regional Italian specialities made with any less than someone's full attention, and I'm sure plenty of other people would too. I only mention any of this because the bread at Tozi was alternately cold, soggy, underseasoned and underwhelming and set, for better or for worse, the tone for a meal which while having some merits, involved too many unforced errors for it to be quite worth the money.
I liked the idea of the barrel-aged house Negroni, for example, poured theatrically tableside, but I got the feeling it wasn't quite as strong as one you'd normally get from the bar. And if it was, then there was something else missing - not as bitter, not as punchy. Not as good. The house martini, though, was excellent, so that made up for it, and each were served pretty smartly by friendly staff who rushed about with commendable energy.
But I wish we'd been told that the soft-shelled crab formed part of the fritto misto while ordering both. I like soft-shelled crab a lot, but we didn't need more than one load of it. And the seafood itself, whilst perfectly dry-fried and of decent quality, was a rather miserly portion for £13.50 when you bear in mind that Polpo's is at least twice this amount for £9, and just as accomplished.
The "Grand selection of cured meats and cheeses" wasn't quite as grand as we'd hoped, including some pretty bog-standard cuts of Parma ham, mortadella and salami, nice enough but very familiar to anyone who's ever eaten Italian meats, and some fridge-fresh chunks of blue goat's, a cheddar-a-like aged in grapes and something that had the taste and texture of a crumbly pecorino, none of which set the pulse racing. For £18.50, is it too much to hope the cheeses be served at room temperature?
Veal ravioli was pleasant enough, £6.75 for three pieces seeming almost a bargain in comparison with what had preceeded, but still had us hoping for more. The sauce was quite thick and salty, the pasta a bit crunchy in parts. Not enough to completely spoil the enjoyment of it, just to bring a faint sense of disappointment.
We probably could have gone easier on the booze (it was a Friday), so I'll put that aside for now, and report only that without alcohol the bill would have come to £55 for two for what amounted to a plate of cold meats and cheese, a fritto misto and three veal ravioli. And that all would be well and good if any of it had been better than just "fine", but we hardly had anything that you couldn't sit down in any number of Italian restaurants in London and order more or less the exact same thing for the exact same price or less.
So maybe my problem isn't with Tozi at all. Maybe it's that Italian food in London generally seems increasingly prescribed. There seems to be this very strict formula - the same dishes offered in exactly the same way, the same ingredients treated identically, even the same price ranges, and a distinct unwillingness to stick your head above the parapet and do something different.
When places do offer a more interesting product - Trullo and Zucca come to mind, and to some extent Tinello although they are constrained by the part of town in which they operate - the results are often extraordinary. So why then can I pick up a wild boar ragu, crab linguine, aubergine parmigiana and so on and so forth from so many identikit Italians in a town where, for so many other cuisines, experimentation is welcomed with open arms? I'm not sure I know the answer. I do know that I'm getting a teensy bit bored of it all, however much of a horrible spoiled food blogger brat that makes me sound...
EDIT: Someone's been in touch to point out that I don't mean ALL Italian restaurants, just the mid-range sit-down trattoria/cicchetti places like the above. We are spoiled for good pizzerias in London, and people like Forza Win put on fantastic popup Italian events that are nothing like anyone else is doing.