They grin away, treating their elderly dates with a condescending charm, chuckling mechanically at the old girls' upper-crust jokes, and then dive for the gents, casting their eyes heavenward for the benefit of other lunchers. The old girl may be loaded, we are meant to understand, but she's very hard work.
The restaurant is a long, low, narrow room, with banquettes on either side and two or three tables at the back by the bar, one of which is usually occupied by what is, I think, a small design firm given to a certain amount of banter. There are also quieter groups of businessmen, and the occasional film director. Michael Winner blows in from time to time from his home across the road, and I once saw Derek Jarman having lunch there.
But, all in all, it is a happy mixture of Kensington and north Italy, with charming paintings of agricultural scenes on the wall. There are the traditional pink tablecloths, glasses full of breadsticks and wrought-iron screens with Chianti bottles hanging from them.
It is presided over by Pino, who sits at the back reading Italian newspapers; he's a bit deaf now but always charming, and fascinated by his guests' little bits of news, a proper old Italian who goes off every year to a shoot in Hertfordshire where courageous Italian hunters dressed in the appropriate costume are released into a field knee-deep in scurrying hares and allowed to blast away until their boots are shot to ribbons.
The resulting game turns up on the menu at certain seasons of the year, weighed down with grapeshot. His wife, Anna, treats this as an understandable eccentricity, and explains the circumstances quite cheerfully to strangers who find themselves picking bits of lead from between their teeth and arranging them round the side of their plates. Anna is one of those Italians who can slip from her native language into English and back again without noticing, and it is she who runs the kitchen. There is also a charming chief waiter, Angelo, who gives a brilliant performance in Italian, but is in fact, like a great many Italian waiters in London, Spanish.
As you will have gathered by now, I know the Portico rather better than some of those other restaurants I have had the temerity to review during the past year. It is my lunchtime local, I am devoted to it, and may exaggerate its advantages. But I don't think so. The first thing that puts it in the front rank of Italian restaurants is that the pasta at the Portico is always freshly made and tastes like it. Strips, strings, shells, coils or flat, it is all without fail delicious, cooked for just long enough and of perfect consistency.
The second thing is the adaptability of the kitchen. The menu is changed quite frequently, but Anna is always happy to make something else to order, like their delicious soup of consomme with egg and slices of white mushroom, or a pesto sauce for spaghetti if it doesn't happen to be on the menu. The third is the attention to detail. Watch Angelo slicing the oranges in caramel sauce and you will understand what I mean.
The menu is a surprisingly long one for a relatively small restaurant, with all the usual Italian starters such as Parma ham and melon, a very good stracciattella, a page of the different home-made pastas - my favourite is the pappardelle ai funghi di Bosco - some fish, which can all be had poached, grilled or meuniere - and then a fairly wide choice of big main courses such as saltimbocca alla Romana, plain grilled liver or steak, all cooked with the same enthusiasm with which they are served, and accompanied by what always seems to be an equally wide range of fresh vegetables.
The pudding trolley is also very good, though not particularly adventurous, with creme caramel, home-made tiramisu and the famous oranges, as well as the usual range of ice-creams and sorbets. The coffee comes with those Italian almond biscuits from Saronno in red and blue paper wrappers; the kind you can roll into a tube, stand on the tablecloth, light the upper rim and use as an indoor firework, watching it float burning right up to the roof, extinguish itself within a centimetre of the ceiling, and float down as a lacy black parachute. Angelo is quite deft at catching the falling remains. It's not something I do at lunchtime, but it is used occasionally to amuse the children.
I think that is the fourth reason why I'd recommend the Portico, particularly for lunch when it's easier to get in: it's a place where you feel really looked after, either in a family party or on your own, or taking someone out to lunch you want to make a fuss of: making a fuss of you is what the Portico does best.
The last time I was there we started with a salad of courgettes, mushrooms and artichoke hearts from the trolley. Then I had spaghetti carbonara with a green salad, my scene-painter stepdaughter had scallopina Milanese, veal hammered very flat with breadcrumbs, with saute potatoes and spinach, then she had a tomato-like fruit from the trolley, persimmon I think, and with a glass of red wine and two cups of coffee the bill came to pounds 32.40. -
Il Portico. 277 Kensington High Street, London W8. Tel: 071-602 6262. Open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner. Menu changes every fortnight. Average pounds 15 to pounds 20 a head. All major credit cards accepted, except Diners CardReuse content