There is something about the new Bertorelli that reminds me of all those noisy, cosy, honest trattorie I love in Italy. Like the unforgettable Cave di Maiano in the Florentine hills, where you enter through the kitchen, and feast for what seems like days on the antipasti alone. Like the neighbourly Rarita in Lerici on the Ligurian coast, where the fish of my zuppa di pesce were the same fish I had seen being unloaded from the boats that morning. And like Trattoria Antonio Bassetti, near (but not too near) the Piazza Navona in Rome, where men spread La Repubblica over the checked tablecloths, an old clock tells the wrong time, the décor is of towering crates of Ferrarelle bottles, and Tonino brings the best pasta and chickpea soup you've ever had.
What reminds me of these honest eateries is the packet of grissini – those spindle-thin Torinese rusks – on the table. And that's it. Nothing else.
Groupe Chez Gerard, which runs this and two brotherly Bertorelli, claims that it "is inspired by Italy in every sense and will epitomise everything Italia"". But where is the warmth, the welcome, the enthusiasm, the delicious smells, the careful cooking, the harassed but proficient waiter?
Come to think of it, where is the waiter? I haven't seen him since he brought the grissini and a Peroni beer the temperature of baby's milk. Service at Bertorelli is delivered on a fairly casual basis by a team of sweet young things who would probably be having a really good night if it weren't for those pesky customers. They have that habit of disappearing when you want them, and appearing when you don't, to the point of clearing our table of sideplates and glasses while we are still eating. Please – why don't you ask us to move our feet so you can sweep? Here, take my chair, you can put it on the table. And if I drain this glass... and just finish what I'm eating... there, you can go now. Or maybe I can.
It's not that GCG hasn't done its homework. The all-Italian wine list, for example, is a clever compilation, running from perfectly drinkable cheap and cheerfuls, to the legendary 1998 Tignanello and 1995 Ornellaia, at a not unreasonable £45 and £50 respectively.
The corporate designers have done a smart, bright job of the large corner location (previously home to another GCG establishment, Soho Soho) with red-cushioned banquettes, wipe-clean timber tables and a strip of a streetside terrace. It's the sort of place you would feel comfortable in if you grew up in McDonald's but had a burning ambition for better things.
The food is all over the place. There are postcards from Italy on the menu, in the form of buffalo mozzarella and tomato with basil, calzone pizza of San Daniele ham, ricotta, spinach and sun-dried tomatoes, and luganega (Lombardian pork and Parmesan sausages). Then we have carrot and ginger soup, roast salmon and horseradish fish cakes, and roasted scallops with smoked haddock mash, which I can only imagine come from Chiantishire.
An entrée of beetroot-cured salmon with mustard leaves, dill and yoghurt dressing (£5.95) is just the sort of entrée I have had recently in self-consciously modern restaurants in Berlin, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Barcelona, Paris and Glasgow. It's pretty, small, and doesn't add up to much. The salmon is too salty, with a strangely bitter aftertaste that doesn't taste at all of beetroot.
Another entrée of linguine, clams and gremolata (£4.95) promises a "tomato dressing". I prefer this Italian classic "bianco" (without tomato), but it can be quite pleasant "rosso" as well. This isn't. It's an ill-judged, full-on long-cooked tomato sugo, so sweet it could have been candied, that knocks out the small, wrinkled clams in the first round. The linguine has bounce and bite, but there's no joy, no sweet subtlety, no lovely juices.
The main course is weird. Two large slabs of medium rare liver coated in a coarse, sandy crust of polenta grains, sitting on pasty mash with a good jus and hard cubes of pancetta (£11.95). Liver should be cooked medium rare, but in this instance the blood starts permeating the crust, creating alarmingly dark, oozing bruises. I feel like calling an ambulance for it.
Risotto with artichoke, broad bean and lemon (£8.50) isn't half bad. It's stodgy, yes, and bland, in spite of its additives, but it carries just a hint of that honest simplicity inherent in good Italian cooking.
Desserts are neither here nor there. Good for them for putting fresh baked peaches (£4.25) on a summer menu, but points off for making them tooth-shatteringly sweet, the syrup spiked with a mix of spices that confuses the peach taste. Whoever made the crisp, perfect macaroon should be promoted, unless they also made the boring and crumbly polenta and sultana cake (£4.25).
I want to like it. I want a decent cheap place in Soho I can crash into for an honest plate of pasta and a bottle of red. But Bertorelli is just Italian food for the hamburger crowd. The scary thing is that it's filled to the rafters with a generation of people who think they are eating real Italian food. They're not. Only real grissini.
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