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The enduring appeal of Italian cuisine

Italian restaurants are always in vogue. Giulia Crouch explores the worldwide spread and asks leading London chefs about the obsession

Words by Giulia Crouch

italian food
The Collection

Ask a Brit what their favourite food is, and they’ll probably say pizza or pasta. Poll after poll puts Italian cuisine first in Britain’s list of preferences: a 2022 YouGov study found it was the UK’s top choice, above Chinese, British and our thoroughly beloved Indian.

This is nothing new – nor is it confined to the UK – but that enthusiasm is evident everywhere you look in Britain: supermarket aisles filled with ready-made ravioli; the proliferation of Neapolitan pizzerias extending far beyond the capital; countless books and TV programmes on the bel paese; and a restaurant scene showing no sign of moving on from Italian gastronomy.

Buzzy, booked up and hyped since opening in 2021, Manteca in east London has had a non-stop stream of diners enticed by its brown crab cacio e pepe. Fellow east London establishment Brutto also opened in 2021, and customers quickly flocked to try Florentine specialities like coccoli – pillowy, golden deep-fried dough balls torn in half to hug creamy, cooling stracchino cheese and salty prosciutto crudo.

Their way was paved long before. The now-iconic River Café opened back in 1987, won a Michelin star (which it has retained ever since) in 1998, and it attracts an upmarket crowd who lap up the restaurant’s charming Tuscan aesthetic. Before that, Italian trattorie, delis, sandwich shops and cafés spanned the country.

In Europe and countries further afield, such as the United States, Australia and Japan, the love affair with Italian cuisine is just as strong, meaning almost anywhere you go you can eat quality Italian food. One of the best Neapolitan pizzas I’ve had (my grandmother was from Campania, so I’ve eaten a lot) was at a small pizzeria called Jana Napoletana in Pristina, Kosovo.

Trends come and go, but Italian restaurants are always in fashion. So, what’s behind this enduring and global appeal?

‘The Italians were the first to bring casual dining to the new middle classes’ – James Chiavarini

Let’s go back to where Britain’s infatuation began. ‘Before the mid-1960s, London was by no means the London it is now,’ says James Chiavarini, whose restaurant Il Portico, in Kensington, is one of the oldest family-run Italian eateries in the capital (it opened nearly 60 years ago). ‘There wasn’t really anything except pie-and-mash shops and fish-and-chip shops. The Italians were the first to bring casual dining to the new middle classes. They were in the right place at the right time to really plant their flag in the ground – and they did it very well.’

Not that it was always good. Celebrity chef Gennaro Contaldo, a mentor to Italophile Jamie Oliver, moved to the UK from a small town on the Amalfi Coast in the 1970s. ‘When I arrived in the UK, Italian food wasn’t as good as it is today – in fact, it was pretty appalling. Good Italian produce was not as easily obtainable as it is today.’

luca italian food
Simple dishes like roasted corno pepper with caponata, borlotti beans and aubergine are served at Luca in London

Nevertheless, Brits fell in love with Italy’s fundamental flavours: sweet tomatoes, salty cheese and fragrant basil, which were new and exciting, but not intimidating. One ingredient captured our hearts more than others: pasta.

Having trained under Jamie Oliver before working at The River Café, Tim Siadatan has built his career on pasta. In 2010 he set up Trullo, a trattoria in north London, before opening Padella in Borough Market, a wildly popular pasta restaurant that always has lengthy queues. There was nothing like it before it opened.

‘Pasta is a very democratic food,’ he tells me. ‘I think that’s the reason behind its global fame.’ It can be decadent – ‘regal’, even, according to Siadatan – or it can be as ‘cheap and rustic as you like’. At Padella, a firm customer favourite is pici cacio e pepe, fundamentally just pasta, butter and cheese.

Francesco Mazzei
Italian chefs like Francesco Mazzei agree that simplicity has been crucial to the spread of Italian cuisine

It was not just the food, however, that drew customers in. Atmosphere was also crucial to the rise. ‘Italian restaurants are about the food, but also about the welcome,’ says London- based Calabrian chef Francesco Mazzei, founder of the critically acclaimed L’Anima in London, which specialised in southern Italian cuisine before closing in 2018. ‘Italians are particularly good at hospitality. There’s always a smile, and kids are allowed, day or night. It’s friendly and relaxed.’

Today’s wave of Italian restaurants goes one of two ways: cool and understated or more is more. Big Mamma, a chain of flamboyant, theatrical Italian restaurants founded in Paris, now has five spots in London, where carbonara is served at the table from giant wheels of pecorino cheese while delighted diners capture the performance for social media. They round off their meals with a lemon pie like no other – topped with an extraordinarily tall quiff of soft, fluffy meringue.

Some sneer that it’s style over substance, but the restaurants, which include Gloria and the newly opened Jacuzzi, are always full. The numbers speak for themselves. In 2023, Big Mamma opened two restaurants in London in the space of four months, and there are 22 in total across the UK, Germany, Spain, France and Monaco.

Enrico Pireddu, the group’s co-managing director, says that quality produce is behind the chain’s success, but if Instagram is anything to go by, diners are probably more interested in the spectacle. Countless posts show customers posing in the glamorous, ostentatious settings or clips of waiters preparing food at the table. ‘It’s more about the theatrics of it all,’ says a chef who didn’t want to be named.

italian food lemon meringue pie
A leaning tower of lemon meringue pie at Gloria, the Instagrammable ‘it’ restaurant that is part of the Big Mamma group

For many chefs, the global success of Italian cuisine is easily explained: ‘It’s simple and it’s vibrant,’ says Jacob Kenedy, head chef at Bocca di Lupo in Soho. ‘When an Italian cooks a tomato, they really celebrate the tomato – or an aubergine, or a prawn or a piece of fish.’ Angela Hartnett, whose Michelin- starred Murano in Bermondsey turned 15 this year, agrees. ‘It’s not intimidating and feels very approachable,’ she explains. ‘It’s dishes that people can make at home, and you don’t need luxury ingredients like lobster.’

Is it this simplicity that gives Italian cuisine an edge over, say, French or Spanish food? ‘Making a great Italian dish takes three ingredients: spaghetti, tomato and basil; or tagliolini, white truffle and butter,’ says Mazzei, whose food was once described by restaurant critic Jay Rayner as ‘the simple done boisterously well’.

‘I don’t think French or Spanish food is as easily definable in the mind of Brits,’ says Robert Chambers, head chef of Luca, a Michelin-starred spot in Farringdon, London. ‘Everyone can namecheck Italian classics, like pasta and pizza, and I think that has a lot to do with it.’

river cafe london
The River Café never falls from fashion

It is also a cuisine that offers something for everyone. Many dishes are vegan without trying, and it can be healthy, with plenty of vegetables and olive oil.

Theo Randall, who won The River Café its Michelin star during his time there, and who is now head chef at the eponymous restaurant at The InterContinental in London, says: ‘Italian restaurants are as popular as ever because everyone is comfortable going to one. The menu is not daunting, and the meal is going to be well balanced. Whether you are vegetarian, pescatarian or a meat eater, the chances are you will be well catered for.’

Maybe this is why you’ll find Italian restaurants all over the world. In Dubai, Domenico Santagada is head chef of seafood restaurant Alici, where he celebrates the flavours of southern, coastal Italy. At Il Bocconcino, in the five-starred Royal Hideaway Corales Resort in Tenerife, Niki Pavanelli uses locally sourced ingredients to enhance Italian dishes, replacing guanciale with Canarian black pig for his carbonara, for example.

trullo dish
Trullo made its name by elevating the classics

Adaptability is key to the success of Italian restaurants around the world, but what does the future hold? For Chiavarini, our excitement for Italian food seems to be constantly renewing itself. ‘People are always discovering new areas while still having familiar reference points,’ he explains. ‘Look at Puglia, for example: ten years ago nobody knew where it was, now everybody wants to go. Five years ago, no one had heard of Emilia-Romagna, and now customers come in asking about dishes they’ve eaten in Bologna.’

Once, Italian restaurants were lumped together as offering one cuisine, but regionality is now beginning to creep in. Bocca di Lupo is designed around it, and Kenedy’s menu points out where in Italy a dish is from – sea bream carpaccio from Venice, or cream of red prawn risotto from Liguria. ‘Italy offers a lot, and yet it’s all harmonious,’ says Kenedy. ‘The rich, buttery food from the north and the scintillating, bright, summery food from the south still belong together.’

Could our love ever fade? The classics are too ingrained. ‘Italian immigrants came to the UK, they brought their food, and we adopted it because it’s delicious,’ says Kenedy. ‘Just like the kebab or the curry.’

‘Italian food and restaurants have been part of our mainstream for decades,’ says Siadatan. ‘I don’t think anyone could ever live without them.’

tiramisu at Grazia Melbourne
Tiramisu at Grazia, Melbourne

The best new Italian spots around the world

  • Massimo’s Italian Restaurant, Dubai: open since May 2023, Massimo’s Italian Restaurant in Dubai has been delighting customers with its array of classic Italian dishes, such as risotto alla milanese and gnocchi alla sorrentina, all served in a chic and glitzy dining room. If you dine alfresco, you get the added bonus of amazing views of the city.
  • Villa Corinthia, Corinthia Palace, Malta: Calabrian chef Francesco Mazzei has taken over the kitchen at the five-star Corinthia Palace hotel in Malta. He’s celebrating classics like veal milanese while embracing the rich offerings from the Maltese shore (and soil) in dishes like fregola pasta with locally sourced seafood.
  • Torrisi Bar & Restaurant, New York, USA: a new Italian-American spot helmed by acclaimed chef Rich Torrisi, this place is causing much excitement for its New York twists on Italian food, such as linguine in a pink Manhattan clam sauce and American hams with zeppole dough balls.
  • Cantinetta Antinori, London, UK: high-end Italian dining options in London continue to grow, and this is the latest addition. From the renowned Tuscan wine family, this restaurant blends cosy and luxe, serving stellar wines combined with Tuscan classics – think pappardelle al ragù, roast potatoes with rosemary and, of course, bistecca alla fiorentina.
  • Grazia, Melbourne, Australia: this hot new 100-seat Italian restaurant has been super-popular since opening. Flavours are big, bold and fun, with dishes like pappardelle with lobster, king prawns, cherry tomato and lobster bisque; crunchy Roman-style pizzas; and potato gnocchi with eight-hour braised beef cheek, green peas and Parmigiano.