Big helpings in little Italy

A family-run Milanese café that specialises in a doughy lunchtime treat
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Indy Lifestyle Online

A while ago I was doing one of those stupid questionnaires over the phone to a magazine journalist in order to plug my book of short stories, and one of the questions was what is your favourite food. Rather than mention the fish cakes at the Ivy or the Tom Yam Gai at the Bangkok Oriental hotel and show myself up for the effete, decadent ponce I really am, I said that whenever I go back home to Liverpool I always visit Steve's chip shop in Aigburth and order what I have been ordering in chip shops ever since I was a drunken teenager, which is: chips, steak and kidney pie and thick curry sauce poured over the top of both. "Now that's what I call fusion cuisine," I told the journalist.

I should have held my tongue: such is the desperation for the big new thing in restaurant food that top chefs obsessively scan the newspapers, medical journals and police accident reports for recipe ideas, so that already both Conran's Mezzo and Ian Shrager's Asia De Cuba in the St Martin's Lane hotel are doing their own versions of steak and kidney pie, curry sauce and chips. (Incidentally in Spanish a "cuba" is a rubbish skip - does this say something about where the food at the St Martin's Lane belongs?)

That is so often British cuisine, isn't it? A hideous concatenation of flavours that would make a European barf. A year after the Hysel disaster, Ian Jack wrote a wonderful piece in one of the colour supplements contrasting the lives of an ordinary football-loving factory worker in Liverpool and one in Turin. I can't remember what other differences there were but the contrasting attitudes to food were glaring. The Torinese ate Risotto Alla Sbirraglia and Uovo in Raviolo Al Tartufo at home, and when he went out to dine he did so at the same cheap elegant restaurants as the city's elite and saw no reason why it shouldn't be so. The scouser lived on Bird's Eye chicken dippers and oven chips and didn't eat out at all. These days the Liverpool fan might venture out to eat but it would still be in a place filled by his own kind - a Kicking Donkey or a Harvester maybe - where he would eat strange bastardised food such as Kipper Biryani, Chicken Tikka Lasagne or Toad in the Hummus.

Just down the street from where I live in London, a small shop recently opened which is everything that the Whacky Warehouse is not. The shop is called Luini and it mainly sells an Italian snack called a "panzerotti". The only other branch of the shop is in Milan. A panzerotti is something like a savoury doughnut but that description doesn't nearly do justice to the top notch snack that it is. A light dough is folded over a filling, traditionally of mozzarella and tomato, then lightly fried. This has become my lunchtime morsel of choice a couple of times a week. After all, it is not often that a new, high-quality takeaway product comes along and I feel I have to get behind it in a big way, I haven't been this excited since the great falafel explosion of the early Eighties. In the shop in Milan, which is always packed, 95 per cent of customers order the mozzarella and tomato - here a wider selection is offered. Apparently, each city in Italy has one panzerotti shop so rather than open in another town at home the Luini family has decided to establish its other branch in London. (It would be a nice idea if there was only one McDonald's in every town - there'd be a branch in the smallest village in Khazakstan by now.)

The owners make every effort to use exactly the same ingredients as in the Milan shop and it is this that makes Luini so distinctive, for at the moment there is virtually no pandering to British taste and the reasonable pricing does not collude in British exploitation of the eater. Interestingly there is a small comments book which gives a glimpse into the torture it must be to be a discerning Italian tourist visiting London. "Valeria" writes: "Finalmente si mangia! Grazie mille." (Finally I can eat! A thousand thanks.) "S" is something of a know-all pedant - he writes "Panzerotti almost delicious. Needs more basil." This has so inflamed another customer that they've replied underneath, "How can you tell Luini how to make panzerotti, they invented it!" There is also a poem which contains the lines, "If you feel grotty, eat panzerotti", so obviously Seamus Heaney shops for his lunch there.

Luini also offers focaccia with various toppings, cakes and terrific pizzas that are a million miles from the triangles of industrial foam with sweetcorn on top offered at most takeaways. Plus there is Italian Portioli coffee infinitely superior to the soapy brown paint in waxy paper cups being glumly drunk in Stinkbucks a couple of doors along.

Luini will not, I imagine, spread beyond its central London base - its food is too authentically Italian for that and I don't reckon they are the sort of people to adapt the product to British taste by offering coronation chicken and sweet-and-sour pork panzerottis. Nevertheless, I hope it prospers in its current spot - it has got my vote (and my £1.50 twice a week).