Emily Green suggests Three good `Italian-theme' restaurants

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The Independent Culture
Restaurants are such an affected branch of food culture, that the absurd becomes commonplace. Take Italian restaurants. When we talk about going to Italian restaurants in London, we somehow forget there aren't any. Italian restaurants are in Italy. We do, however, have Italian theme places. And some aren't bad. In fact, some are good. Here are three

BARBICAN

Go to Whitecross Market for a pair of spectacles and you may come away with a Tuscan rice salad instead. The Alba, 107 Whitecross Street, EC1 (0171-588 1798) has just expanded, taking over the optician's next door. And very handsome the double-sized restaurant is too, in a pinkly modern sort of way. The designer is proprietor Rudi Venerandi, a suave, young Clerkenwell Italian and son of the proprietors of the Barbican Grill, several doors down. Another relative owns a deli on the Farringdon Road. The style is a couth hybrid: English trattoria informed by a very Northern League, Piedmontese sense of chic. So, instead of Chianti bottles and kitsch statues made of putty, there is a spray of orchids and some handsome pots of rosemary in the window. The place is good on small civilities, too. Napery is fresh and starchy, waiters are unflappable men in waistcoats and the bread is ciabatta.

The cooking also commutes in style between English and northern Italian: the shredding of chicory in their green salads is a decorative touch aimed at the English eye. While a cold wheat salad called faro is convincingly Italian, what tasted like tinned peas had a sort of EC1 quality about them. There are very decent carpaccios - cured veal, beef and occasionally horse - dressed with excellent olive oil, lemon and parmesan. However, the only dish I always order is risotto: rich, glossy, just the right consistency (unctuous with a bite at the base of the rice) and flavoured with whatever is seasonal, from porcini, to chicory, to fresh green peas. An awkward impasse (like now) in the farming calendar might contribute more of the City of London peas and shredded carrot.

This is definitely a place to drink, and drink reds. This red: 1990 Barbaresco of Rocca Albino. Prices from £20-£40 per person. Open lunch and dinner Mon-Fri. Major credit cards

HAMMERSMITH

For many years it was the standing joke among self-regarding "foodies" that the best Italian restaurant in London was run by two English women: Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, wife of architect Richard Rogers. Honestly! Talk about Rome in a day... The River Caf, Thames Wharf, Rainville Road, W6 (0171-381 8824) is an English restaurant, most specifically a west London restaurant, run by a cool and glamorous lite that has villas abroad and Range Rovers at home, for whom it seems natural and stylish to be handed a menu in Hammersmith that is first written in Italian with sub- headings in English. The whole place reeks of sunny privilege. There is more sorrel in one plate of their sorrel soup than most British cooks use in a lifetime. And it is delicious. And very expensive. The room itself is modern, but lacks the racy exhibitionism or florid splashes of glitz one finds in Italy. It is an English gay bachelor's dream decor (and mine too). The natural light and the views over the lawn contribute to an idyllic stupor. Businessmen stopping for three-Chianti lunches suddenly look beautiful enough to paint. Other things are curious - little plates of olive oil oxidising on the tables and the heavy unpalatability of the campagnola bread. Open lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Mon-Sat. Approx £30-£40. Visa, Access

SHAFTESBURY AVENUE

There is a sleeping spell over Romilly Street that has somehow spared the flamb house L'Epicure and the trattoria La Capannina, 24 Romilly Street, W1 (0171-437 2473). The latter has a cool, sepulchral darkness, given weight by comforting props - the pudding trolley, the string of Chianti bottles. There is another trolley loaded with antipasti of the gooey egg mayonnaise school. The reason to go is fish: a waiter will show you the thing, head on, before cooking to satisfy the customer that the eyes are clear and texture firm. Fresh pasta is also good, and the light, Italian-style breads are unusually echt-tasting. Approx £20-£30. Major credit cards. Open lunch Mon-Fri, dinner Mon-Sat

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