Dom Joly: Whatever happened to the Italian restaurant?

They would always answer any request for a reservation on the phone with – “You a’know we are a’not’

They would always answer any request for a reservation on the phone with – “You a’know we are a’not’a the famous Bertorellis?” - Credit: Archant

I’m here to tell you, we need Italians to bring back some joy to our lives

I’ve been out of the Cotswolds learning to fly my hot-air balloon in a rather beautiful little town called Mondovi in Northern Italy. The original plan was to slowly learn my new hobby back home in the Cotswolds, but I need a minimum of 16 hours flying before I can even think about getting a pilot’s license and, I’m sorry to break it to you, but the weather in Italy is a touch better than it is round here for most of the time.

Hot-air ballooning is mostly about spending time hanging around in fields at dawn waiting for the wind to die down. When you’re doing this in Italy, surrounded on three sides by the snow-capped Alps and knowing that you are only five minutes away from food made in heaven… it’s all a little easier.

Speaking of Italian food, whatever happened to that over here? Growing up it was all little trattorias run by three generations of the same family.

I first met my wife in one in London – The wonderful Bertorelli’s La Toscana in Notting Hill Gate. They would always answer any request for a reservation on the phone with – “You a’know we are a’not’a the famous Bertorellis?”

While at school in Oxford my parents would regularly take me to a family-run trattoria where the owner was always incredibly keen to marry me off to his nine-year-old daughter (relax, I was also nine at the time).

These establishments always had several crucial elements in common – there would be badly-painted watercolours on the wall, ‘by a local artist’. These were always for sale but never, ever bought by anyone. There would also be signed photos of minor celebrities who had supped at the establishment on the wall. Bertorelli’s had Chris de Burgh, China Crisis and, in prime position, Sophia Loren. When I was making Trigger Happy TV I would often eat there while brainstorming and became quite determined to get on the wall. I would hint heavily to Signor Bertorelli that I was on the telly and a person of quite some importance but he always appeared totally uninterested. Eventually I forced the issue by bringing in a signed photo in a frame and presenting it to him. He still remained remarkably unimpressed but eventually placed in on the wall – way below China Crisis…

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There would always be wicker-bottomed bottles of Chianti hanging from the ceiling and a ‘sweet trolley’ would always be sitting in the corner looking oh so enticing. I would methodically go through the options – crème caramel, tiramisu, trifle – before inevitably ordering profiteroles, the pudding of the gods (my wedding cake was a profiterole pyramid).

The food would be simple, home-cooked fare and utterly delicious. Varieties of pastas for ‘primi’, followed by a meat or fish dish ‘per secondi’.

These were institutions where everybody knew your name. You felt at home. You ate and drank copiously – a good time was had by all. My sojourn in Italy reminded me of all this – what the hell happened to all these wonderful places?

Now we are lumbered with a series of soulless chain restaurants that nod to Italian origins but have completely missed the point. We all slam the Seventies, when British food was a joke and a glass of orange juice could be considered a starter. These trattorias, however, were never guilty of that; they were producing the same wonderful, family meals that they had for generations. Why have we gone off them? Why do we put up with these god-awful chain restaurants that pay minimum wage and minimum attention to loyal clients? Something needs to be done. Maybe Grandma has died and the grandkids didn’t want to take over the business? Maybe rents and rates got too expensive? Maybe we started to take Italian food for granted and wanted to get more sophisticated – explore Vietnamese, Lebanese, Ethiopian…

Having spent the last week eating my own bodyweight in what Northern Italy has to offer, I’m here to tell you we need to somehow get some Italians to re-open some decent restaurants. It’s time to say no to the boring chains that homogenise our high streets and bring back some joy to our lives.


For more from Dom, follow him on Twitter: @DomJoly