The pizza that wasn't delivered

CENTO 50 150 Notting Hill Gate, London W11 3QG. Tel: 0171 221 2442. Open daily from noon to 11.30pm. Average price per person, pounds 25. Major credit cards except American Express accepted
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The Independent Culture
The flash new Cento 50 restaurant on the busy central London artery of Notting Hill was for many years a strange, long, establishment called Cleopatra's with covered-over windows. It was hard to imagine what could be going on in the exotically named eaterie to warrant such opaque-windowed secrecy, especially since in every other respect Cleopatra's looked like a classic haunt for large office parties entertained by people in national dress smashing plates above the tables and jumping into the air with both legs at right angles. Rumours of shoot-outs circulated (also rumours that these were suicides bought on by the starters). The new owners have gone to the other extreme, window-wise, turning the entire two-storey frontage into one giant see-through window, with another clear glass wall at the rear of the building topped with a see-through-ceilinged atrium: as if to demonstrate the extreme safeness of the reincarnated haunt.

We were led on an inexplicably long journey through a sparsely populated, large and gangster-free ground floor, up a sweeping marble staircase (with sturdy bannister) and right to the end of the equally large and semi-empty second floor before being placed at our table. We looked expectantly round the room to try and get a flavour of the style, which turned out to be no straightforward feat.

The new restaurant is an Italian one, and there was certainly a bit of a Mediterranean feel with Spanish and Italian tiling and terracotta, but the design had fought shy of settling on one idea rather than another. There was a nod in the direction of Conran - with cherry-red curved banquettes around the edges of the room, bare blonde wood tables - very square - and chairs contrastingly round. But then on the walls were lithographs (such as a Magritte-style hat floating over gradations of red skies) which seemed to be harking back a couple of decades, while something about the potted palms, the central stairwell atrium with its tree, and the wall- lights sticking out on stalks from square panels of wood hinted at the world of the upmarket chain hotel.

I had been looking forward to a pizza all day, since the pizzas of chef Enrico Sartor (formerly of the Peasant in Islington) were promised as a speciality produced from "special flour flown in daily from southern Italy" and baked in a "refractory-brick double-deck pizza oven." Alas, the refractory-brick double-deck oven was lonely and ignored that night as pizzas were off, and we were offered a more high-falutin' menu in an eclectic modern Italian style: baby artichokes, pears, and aged Sardinian pecorino, for example, pumpkin risotto, ravioli stuffed with ricotta,langoustines with basil tagliolini.

The service got off to an unusual start: instead of being brought bread we were offered bread, then not brought it, but we contented ourselves with a dish of good green olives and the wine list. Cento 50 has had the admirable idea of allowing one to gauge precisely the amount of wine one wants to drink - unless it is a single glass, which is not allowed. Most of the wines are available in different-sized jugs ranging from pounds 3.25 to pounds 13.50, as well as by the bottle. The list offers about a dozen each of reds and whites, Italian or New World, priced from pounds 9.50 to pounds 45. We plumped for a New Zealand Marlborough Sauvignon at pounds 18, so good we immediately started to plan the exact cubic capacity of its follow-up jug.

After the initial bread debacle the service entirely redeemed itself; with the fresh-faced staff being friendly and relaxed yet attentive. For starters my companion kicked off with tuna carpaccio with wild rocket, lemon and parmesan. There is not much you can do wrong with such a combination, short of spilling a salt pot on it, provided the ingredients are good, and these were superb. My soft goats cheese, with salad of aubergines, mint and focaccia however, rather disappointed me with the blob of goats cheese being as soft as half-melted Haagen-Dazs, nestling next to a huge sandwich-style arrangement of giant focaccia triangles. It was tasty but heftier and less salady than the word salad usually leads you to expect.

Heftiness seemed to be the order of the day when my grilled venison steak arrived, more reminiscent of Rudolph than Bambi and so fiercly grilled as to taste really quite strongly of charcoal. My date said his swordfish reminded him of a face-flannel, flopped on top of a bed of fennel and soggy orange. It is not often one sees an orange in a savoury dish these days, and the stewed nature of this one did nothing to suggest a fashionable resurgence of the fruit under restaurant fishes. "It's a barbarian combination," burst out my companion, then thought better of himself, agreeing that the main dishes were all right but lacking in daintiness and delicacy of flavour.

We were both by now feeling much too full for a pudding but were more than rewarded for our professional valour in pressing on. Although the hefty theme continued, and there had been some very intemperate icing- sugar dredging, white chocolate tiramisu cake was exquisite, and mascarpone ice cream with roast peaches and amaretto made up in finely judged flavour for all that the main courses had been missing.

As we moved on to our final wine juglet and coffee, we found our eyes straying wistfully over the traffic of Notting Hill to the familiar lilac sign of Pizza Express, and couldn't help feeling that its lovely blend of informality, cheapness, and style was what Cento 50 had been groping towards. The large, brightly downlit, bare-tabled space would lend itself far better to pizzas and hamburgers than daintily grilled bits of duck nestling on unusual leaves, and we thought if you were going to spend pounds 40 a head (for three courses and an pounds 18 bottle of wine) you'd want to go somewhere more special-feeling.

Cento 50 would do well to make sure the double-deck pizza oven is working full tilt on every occasion, and perhaps re-introduce just a hint of opaque window by those seats with the lights of Pizza Express in direct line of sight. !

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