Is bacon a vegetable? You might find that an odd question, but it’s likely to arise at the Italian Cultural Institute’s Belgravia restaurant. Just last week, my pal found herself rowing with the waiting staff over this very issue. She’d been proudly presented with a meal containing pancetta – despite having explained she is a vegetarian. “That isn’t meat, it’s ham,” the waiter said, shrugging. “È animale! È Carne!” my companion cried, with some authentic Mediterranean hand waggling.
This wasn’t the quiet lunch I had expected. I’d planned for some simple, delicious (and cheap) Italian nosh. The ICI hosts visiting trainees from Italy’s culinary schools; currently, the chefs are a group from Senigallia on Italy’s east coast.
The menu was limited (especially if you don’t eat meat), but as an omnivore I plumped for pasta with duck and tomato sauce. The vegetarian – at that point placid and exceptionally polite – went for baked aubergine with cheese, tomato and basil (on the advice of our waiter, I must add).
After a while, a cold plate of pasta arrived, and so did the aubergine – covered in ham. My pal’s eyes widened, aghast, and the fun began. Bravely, I put my head down and started scoffing my pasta, accompanied by the pleasant melody of an old-fashioned Italian rumpus. Apart from its temperature, the food was tasty: moist, gamey duck with a slightly peppery sauce. The pasta was of a high quality, but obviously should have been hotter.
When the argument concluded, our hosts tried a second time to cook vegetarian food, this time dishing up a small pile of pasta in a plain tomato sauce. It was okay, I’m told, as far as tomato sauces go. Once again, though, the pasta was cold. The atmosphere, meanwhile, was frosty.
Boldly, we stuck with it, and both of us sampled the pudding: apple pie. This too was cold, but also delicious. It was more of a sponge cake than a typical pie, and it sat in a thin, creamy custard. The sponge was friable and wonderfully light. The custard had a sweet vanilla flavour and complimented the slightly tart apple perfectly.
At £22.50 for two, it wasn’t too tough on the wallet; but when I tried to pay by card, a waitress simply took it off me and walked out of the restaurant. After a five minute wait, we thought it best to enquire where she and the card had gone. It turns out you have to pay upstairs. Toddling up a winding staircase, we bumbled around for a bit before discovering the waitress in the library, looking rather impatient at having to wait for our arrival.
Lunch was certainly eventful, providing anecdotes galore. And while the food was chilly, we were at least warmed by the memory of multiple misunderstandings. ?