Food & Drink: Italy, the food, now open at a restaurant near you: Polenta and pizza feature on the menus of these fashionably 'Italianate' London restaurants. But each one is distinctively different, says Emily Green

AT FIRST glance, three of London's newest restaurants are helplessly in thrall to Italy. The youngest is the week-old Cantina del Ponte, a large and handsome new riverside room in Sir Terence Conran's development at Butlers Wharf near Tower Bridge. Yet, despite the strong Italianate strain in the menu and wine list, Sir Terence prefers 'Mediterranean'.

To me it is neither. It is padding in the 'gastrodome', that lovely Thames-side food complex launched by Conran last year. Le Pont de la Tour has matured into a solid and sumptuous restaurant, with a jazzy brasserie attached. There is also a bakery, a delicatessen and a wine shop. The influence is Parisian, but the main impression is of a robust yet elegant place, reflecting Conran's own enthusiasms.

This new Mediterranean restaurant feels more ephemeral, as if Conran has contented himself by subscribing to a trend instead of setting one. On opening night the quality of the food varied wildly. As a starter, according to the menu, carpaccio of salmon came with olive oil, lemon and rocket. The dressing tasted like a sweet Scandinavian honey mustard and needed salt.

A little pizza with fontina and prosciutto was excellent, especially the crust. It, too, for some reason came topped with rocket. The antipasto was disappointing. There is logic to Italian displays of meats and pickles. There was no logic to this plate of intense savouries, including a soggy, cold bruschetta laden with chicken liver pate and a sliver of cold sweated red pepper.

As main courses, a rich serving of osso bucco was enlivened by its traditional accompaniment: lemon zest and parsley. With it were superb, lightly cooked savoy cabbage and a greasy, gritty block of polenta. A great big dish of braised calamari was just about as dull as dinner can get. Granted, it looked good. The squid was abundant and the spinach intertwined through it still vibrant. But there was little aroma and, once past the lips, the sauce was gutless. The slight heat of chilli peppers simply pointed up its anaemia. Calf's liver, braised onions and fried sage seemed like an appreciative nod to the trattoria menus of old.

The wine list, cleverly laid out according to style of wine, has tempting bottles from Piedmont, Friuli, Puglia, Tuscany and Sardinia. Pricing, from pounds 8.75 to pounds 19.50, with most bottles at pounds 12-pounds 14, is a model of fairness.

The Cantina's staff are as good as you will find in London. A friend remarked they were like the united colours of Benetton: one was fat, another slim, one was black, another brown, another blonde, another a redhead. My special admiration is reserved for the barmen, one English, one Northern Irish. But all were charming, and so they should be, for a service charge of 15 per cent is built into the bill.

The Cantina is not cheap. With a modest round of pre-dinner drinks, mineral water, a pounds 14.50 bottle of wine and two courses each, we spent just over pounds 30 per person. An afterthought: neither the Pont nor the Cantina has lavatories for the disabled, a serious oversight in such modern, newly designed ground-floor restaurants.

THE OSTERIA Antica Bologna opened quietly in Clapham in April 1990. Its new sister restaurant, Del Buongustaio, opened just as discreetly in Putney six weeks ago. Here the food and wine is internazionale, meaning the menu spans all the Italian regions, including that little represented province located well below the boot of Italy known as Australia. The antipodean bent is no mystery. The proprietors are Rochelle Porteous, an Australian, and Aurelio Spagnuolo, an Italian.

This new restaurant is a dream of a local: pretty, softly lit and smoothly run. Within, a large dish of marinated olives awaits you at table. Service is deft and solicitous. The menu changes daily.

If it carries raviolis, order them. The pasta in the ravioli, stuffed with potato and bacon, was exceptionally light and delicate. Other dishes were good or perfectly sound, including quite gamey venison sausages with root vegetables and polenta. A garlicky spaghetti with oregano was fine. Cuttlefish and potatoes heavily spiked with chilli (described as all'inferno) had too little going on behind the aggressive heat.

Wines are Australian and Italian. The velvety, delicious Rosso di Montalcino from Talenti is pounds 16.50.

THE opening of Mezzaluna New York was rather overshadowed by a naked girl, or at least pictures of one. When a big-time public relations company informed the press that Madonna's new book would be unveiled at Mezzaluna, a Covent Garden spin-off of a cult New York restaurant, everyone rushed for the book and ignored the restaurant.

Even if they had not, 'cult' is pushing it. Mezzaluna was founded in New York in 1984 by Aldo Bozzi, then chairman of Alfa Romeo in America. It spawned several acolytes in America before Neal Grossman (yes, brother of Loyd, he of Masterchef) was recently taken into partnership to open the first London branch in Covent Garden's spanking new Thomas Neal Centre.

Since there was already a more modest Mezzaluna on the Finchley Road (not to be confused with Mezzaluna of New York, Aspen and Beverly Hills), Mr Grossman's London restaurant is somewhat inappropriately called Mezzaluna New York. I prepared myself for jet trash, blown in on the tailwind of a millionaire's private charter. I found a handsome, moderately priced and warmly hospitable restaurant.

I liked it. Not for the food. Not even for the wood-burning pizza oven, fronted by some rather gruesome tile-work. Nor would I even return for the delicious Tuscan olive oil poured with the bread. Rather, I liked the easy atmosphere. When I sat down for Sunday lunch several weeks ago, the afternoon disappeared in a lazy haze. We ate a little, drank a little, ate some more, drank some more, then spun out coffees for another hour. They finally poured us a brandy and vin santo on the house, as if for old times' sake. As we left, dinner service was in swing.

The pizza crust was good, the dough spot on. The toppings are curious. Why bake pesto into bread, burning off its fresh minty zing? Our pasta, too, was poor. Our fusilli, served undercooked, was tough. A savoury, pungent sauce, which included sun-dried tomatoes, capers, peppers and onions, tasted as if it had been tipped out of a jar.

Far and away the best thing was goose carpaccio. This dried fowl took some chewing but had real flavour. It came with truffle oil and parmesan shavings; very nice, but a little pile of salad, topped by a tomato, made the dish resemble an ice-cream sundae.

If, like most of its vogueish London counterparts, Mezzaluna is a pastiche of an Italian restaurant, it does one Italian thing superbly: it makes children welcome and comfortable. As my Sunday afternoon turned to evening, a five-year-old who had been following the pizza chef around seemed as reluctant to leave as I was.

Cantina del Ponte, Butlers Wharf Building, 36c Shad Thames, London SE1 (071-403 5403). Children welcome. Vegetarian meals. Light meals from pounds 10, full meals with wine, coffee, service and VAT from pounds 25-pounds 30. Open lunch (12noon-3pm) daily; dinner Mon-Sat (6-11pm). Major credit cards.

Del Buongustaio, 283 Putney Bridge Road, London SW15 (081-780 9361). Approx pounds 25- pounds 30 for 3 courses, wine, coffee, service, VAT. Vegetarian meals. Children welcome. Open lunch (12 noon-3pm) and dinner (6.30-11.30pm) Mon-Sat. Major cards except Diner's.

Mezzaluna New York, 37a Neal Street, Thomas Neal Centre, WC2 (071-379 3336). Light meals from pounds 15, three courses, wine, coffee and VAT from pounds 25-pounds 30. Children welcome. Vegetarian meals. Wheelchair access (also wc). Open 12noon-12midnight daily. Major credit cards.

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