SO THEN, what have the Italians ever done for us
Guest food reviewer JOSEPH CONNOLLY takes a trip down memory lane to Hampstead's Villa Bianca Italy, eh? Quite apart from what, as the Pythons had it, the Romans ever did for us, there s Venice, Vivaldi – and, rather more to the point, vitello, vermicelli and Valpolicella: Italian cuisine, in a nutshell. Oh, also they gave us the Mafia, of cours
Italy, eh? Quite apart from what, as the Pythons had it, the Romans ever did for us, there's Venice, Vivaldi - and, rather more to the point, vitello, vermicelli and Valpolicella: Italian cuisine, in a nutshell. Oh, also they gave us the Mafia, of course, and in one episode of The Sopranos I recall some big-quiffed slack-mouthed assassin referring to Mr Obama's recently acquired residence as the "Villa Bianca".
But to us locals, though, this can only mean one thing: the very pretty and perfectly located restaurant in Perrin's Court at the heart of Hampstead village. It has been delighting regulars since 1969 (although they're making no fuss at all about their 40th birthday). The word of mouth about this place, though, is not always good: the general vox pop seems to be, oh, yawn, yawn, it's still there, just so-so, and way overpriced. Well it never used to be that - so what's going on there these days?
Well rather a lot, in terms of bustle: by 8.45 on a Tuesday evening in March the ground floor was completely full, very loud, and still the punters kept coming. They were directed to the upstairs section (not so jolly), where a medley of favourites was being tinkled away at on a baby grand by a contented-looking Latin in a scarlet satin shirt and a little black waistcoat; he would not have looked out of place clacking on a pair of castanets, a rose gripped firmly between his jaws.
And there were roses - a red one to every table. Proper cloths and napkins, a variety of good Italian bread, tomatoey nibbles and packets of grisini. The welcome was warm and professional, the menu enormous - nearly 20 starters, 16 pasta dishes, 20 meat, 15 fish... good grief.
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My wife eventually plumped for prosciutto San Daniele with "mozarella dumplings". What, we wondered, can they be...? Well, it was just absolute balls, quite frankly. Of mozarella, I mean: nothing dumpling about it. The quantity of excellent dry and melting prosciutto was huge (all the portions here are very generous) and my grilled scallops on the inescapable bed of spinach were as succulent as you want them to be - though pricy, I suppose, at �12.50.
We had a bottle of the house red - always a sound bet in an Italian place, though risky elsewhere - which turned out to be a decent Sangiovese for �14.
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Did I say it was loud? Dear God. Marble floor, half-marble walls and a happy crowd braying their lungs out. I asked my wife what she thought of her main course - wide ribbons of pasta in a duck ragu: no, I don't think it's too warm in here, she replied, quite equably. I tasted it: meaty and yummy - claggy in a good way. Then she asked me a question. "What ...?" I said - and she repeated it. "What ...?" I said. Oh dear. I was close to getting her to write it down. I assured her anyway that my house special - pollo Villa Bianca - was quite excellent: a large tender chicken breast with a well-judged wine and brandy sauce studded with mushrooms and peppers. "What ...?" she said, perplexed. Never mind.
There were also enough saute potatoes for three or four people but I liked them, so I ate the lot. The zucchini fritti were a mild disappointment - cut into strips and just not crunchy.
During the pause before pud, I had a look around. Did I say it was loud? Dear God. A lot of the din seemed to be attributable to a sole American woman - remarkable really, as it all seemed to be emanating from just the one nostril.
The same old leather bucket seats were as comfy as ever, the walls still bianca, the false slatted ceiling half-concealing spotlights that I think are meant to light the forgettable art, but in fact are rather dazzling to the eye. It's as close to a restaurant in Italy as you could feasibly get - and a mixed bunch of people, though tending towards the 30-somethings, with a sprinkling of white and older heads, which no doubt have been gorging here for decades.
We ordered, to share, a black and white chocolate mousse. Wasn't black and white - it was fawn and cream, and quite toothachingly sweet: like a melange of everyone's last Rolo, whereupon some wiseacre had thought, oh, what the hell, and yelled out with gusto, "The Milky Bars are on me!" and duly added them to the mix.
The head waitress ... oh, I haven't mentioned her, have I? Perfectly delightful, in a figure-hugging black tuxedo skirt-suit and high-heeled patents and groovy glasses - a secretary right out of Mad Men, really. Anyway, she was most concerned that we hadn't eaten our kiddies' choccy treat - but you feel a bit of a fool, don't you? Saying it's over-sweet. You imagine them wandering away and spitting through gritted teeth, "Well of course it's sweet - it's a sweet, isn't it, you moron? What do you want? Sour? Acid? You want it with salt ...?!"
Ah well. She was further mortified when I queried the bill: two bottles of wine, two bottles of water, when we had had only one of each. Quickly rectified - but the total was still just shy of �90. Not cheap, then - but not just so-so either: this was a very good meal indeed in a restaurant clearly catering to a clientele for whom the credit simply isn't crunching (in common with my zucchini fritti).
We staggered home, replete. The trouble with Italian food, of course, is that after a week, you're hungry again.
Joseph Connolly's latest novel, Jack the Lad and Bloody Mary, is published by Faber and Faber priced �8.99.
Villa Bianca, 1 Perrin's Court, NW3 1QS
Telephone: 020-7435 3131
Food: three star rating
Service: four star rating
Open seven days a week, noon-3.30pm, 7-11.30pm.
Cost: Starters �6.50 to �16, mains �12.50-�22.