When is a restaurant not a restaurant? When it's trying to be several other things at once. I may have bent your ears before about restaurants which are "also" breakfast cafés, tea-rooms, local-produce shops, off-licences, children's rumpus-rooms, and places where "you just drop in for a glass of wine and a few nibbles". I've heard every combination, and they seldom work: it's like training a shire horse to go out and be a thoroughbred the next day and take kids on beach rides the day after.
Briciole, an attractive new eating-house which used to be the Honey Pot pub near Edgware Road Tube, is a case in point. It flags itself as 'an Italian trattoria, café-bar and deli under one roof'. Its company logo shows cartoon Italian breads rampaging about (and making crumbs, or 'briciole') and calls itself 'ristorante gastronomia'. My first impression, on walking in, was of a bright and cheerful deli – the gastronomia – behind which was a fabulous array of wines and a chap languorously carving slices from a salumeria. My friend Jon and I perched on stools while the maître d', Umberto Tosi, a charmer with a Father Ted hairstyle, brought our drinks with murmurs of "No-rush-no-rush-your-table-is-ready-anytime" in that relaxed Italian way.
Inside, the restaurant is strenuously down-home functional, with stuck-on (rather than exposed) brickwork, scrubbed floorboards, pictures and tables that could have come from a mail-order catalogue, and drainpipe-long pepper grinders for that authentic 1950s touch. I could have done with some tablecloths amid all the wood-on-wood effect – but that would have made it too restaurant-y, when it wants to be All Things to All Eaters.
The menu is extraordinary – two pages mostly devoted to starters. The prices are astonishingly low, in the £3-£5 region – but you soon realise that Briciole, as well as being a café-deli-trattoria-bar-gastronomia, is a tapas joint. Italian tapas make an almighty fuss of ham and cheese. Our bruschetta came with burrata cheese, aubergines and olives – crunchy and milky and fine, though Jon was unimpressed: "The aubergines are a bit non-committal," he said. "A bit self-effacing." (I agreed. I cannot stand a bumptious aubergine.) From a choice of eight mouthfuls of ham, we ordered three. Prosciutto di Bassiano from Lazio was... very nice prosciutto, but I doubt if even Lazio's famous adoptive son, Paul Gascoigne, could tell it from any other kind. Finocchiona Toscana had a pleasant fennel tang. Sardinian sheep prosciutto was more mutton than lamb, a touch papery but tasty none the less.
From no less than 14 cheeses ("All these cheese hors d'oeuvre," I grumbled to our charming-but-firm waiter, "is that normal?" "No Italian," he replied firmly, "would dream of eating cheese at the end of the meal") we picked just one, a Toma from Piedmont. It was stunning, Gorgonzola-strong, rich and creamy.
It was all just fine but – for Gawd's sake, we'd spent 45 minutes ordering and eating some charcuterie, the kind of thing you absently knock back while waiting for someone to cook supper. We were a whole page into the menu, and felt as though we hadn't started.
The main event – what in any other trattoria would be the primi e secondi piatti, rather the seventh or eighth one – was pasta followed by meatballs or sausage. A final category of 'La brace/Barbecue' offered grilled meat and fish in off-puttingly curt language: 'Pork chop'; 'Tuna steak'. We both found the pasta disappointing: veal ravioli with butter and sage lacked softness, butteriness and seasoning (until the waiter smothered it in black pepper). Tagliatelli with artichokes lacked salience. "It's just pasta next door to artichokes," said Jon. "They've had no effect on the sauce."
He wasn't impressed, either, with the bluntly-titled Chicken Supreme from the 'barbecue' list. It was simply grilled, and served by itself and looked so lonesome that I felt rather sorry for it. A side-dish of verdure grigliate – aubergines, red peppers, courgettes, carrots – provided some colourful companions, but still...
The only real highlight of the meal was my polpette fritte in agrodolce, namely sweet and sour fried meatballs, done Palermo-style. The meatballs were alarmingly baby-pink inside, but incontrovertibly tasty.
A pudding sundae of affogato al caffe, or vanilla ice-cream drowned in espresso, was OK. Jon gave a final thumbs-up to the Sicilian cannoli, in which a rich, brown ice-cream wafer is filled with ricotta, chocolate, candied orange and cinnamon. We polished off an amazingly cheap £17 Sicilian nero d'avola and left, feeling oddly unsatisfied. I think it's the rhythm of dinner at Briciole that's wrong. Lots of lingering over teeny cold plates, then a long wait for the hot dishes, which are mostly amateurish in execution. It's not a backstreet-nibbles bar (like Polpo and its Venetian-bacaro offshoots) nor a full-blown restaurant experience. It's essentially a simple trattoria with lots of charm but one or two delusions of grandeur.
Briciole, 20 Homer Street London W1 (020-7723 0040)
About £110 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side orders: Italian tapas
Russell Norman's Soho eaterie above the French House specialises in Venetian snacks – try the zucchini fries and salt cod with Anya potatoes.
49 Dean Street, London W1 (020-7734 1969)
This Italian wine bar serves excellent small sharing plates such as calamari fritti and spicy pork and beef meatballs.
10 Quality Street, North Berwick, Scotland (01620 892 477)
The piattini on offer here include arancini – delicious deep-fried balls of saffron risotto rice, filled with mozzarella.
115 Deansgate, Manchester (0161 831 9930)