Caldesi in Campagna: Tuscany-on-Thames

Caldesi in Campagna, Old Mill Lane, Bray, Berkshire, 01628 788500
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The inhabitants of Bray, a pretty village in the Berkshire countryside, must wonder what they've done to deserve such pampering. While neighbouring villages content themselves with a Copper Kettle tearoom and a chicken-and-mushroom pie in the Pig and Whistle, Bray folk can choose between eating at the Roux brothers' Waterside Inn, Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck and a 15th-century hunting lodge turned gastropub called the Hind's Head, where Prince Philip held his stag night in 1947.

Into this gustatory Valhalla now strides the flamboyant figure of Giancarlo Caldesi. Born in Montepulciano, and married to an English Katie, he's lived in England for 30 years. They opened the Caldesi restaurant in Marylebone, a strenuously authentic Tuscan experience from antipasto to vino santo, 14 years ago, followed by a funkier younger brother, Caffè Caldesi, and a cookery school called La Cucina Caldesi, plus a brace of cookbooks. So he's already heftily name-branded. His move to Bray looks like a very public attempt by the ambitious Giancarlo to play with the big boys.

His new restaurant, located round the corner from a gallery exhibition of Rolf Harris paintings, is a handsome, solid, two-storey house that resembles a good country pub. Inside, the moleskin-and-cream décor seems a tad muted and homely, until you realise it's meant to evoke a Tuscan home, right down to the framed pictures of Mamma in the white conservatory. When we arrived, Giancarlo and wife were holding court on the patio – an al fresco dream of prosecco among the terracotta pots – and showing off their forno oven, a new acquisition in which they make damnably tasty salted bread. It beats the usual wicker basket, hands down.

The menu is nicely compact, startlingly expensive, and a boon for the greedy: here you get warm slices of roast pork stuffed with Italian herbs and served on lentils as a first course. Homemade (naturally) tortelloni with mozzarella, ravioli with seabass and tagliolini with black truffle are exquisitely simple, though the guazzetto di pesce, a mixum-gatherum of monkfish, prawns, clams and mussels, hinted at higher ambitions in the kitchen (where the chef, incidentally, rejoices in the name of Piazza).

We chose the five-course Italian Sunday Lunch, reasoning that it was about time we discovered the Italian equivalents of Yorkshire pudding and Delia Smith gravy. First came a huge tray of antipasti to share: Parma ham, salami, sun-dried tomatoes heftily spiced with chilli salsa, some excellent artichoke hearts, smokily chargrilled. The star of the starters, though, was lardo colonnato, wafers of white pig-fat that literally melted away on your tongue, leaving a faint savoury essence behind, as if a porcine angel had touched your mouth.

Then came Giancarlo's Lasagna, made with beef, pork ragu and porcini mushrooms, and prepared just the way his mamma used to make it. I'm suspicious of gourmets who make fancy claims about ragu dishes, when we both know that their core constituents are minced beef and tomatoes, but really, this was sensational: devilishly creamy, thickly flavoured, the top pasta leaves charred to perfection. It was, I think, the best lasagna I've ever tasted.

After it, the main-course – roast guinea fowl and chicken on root vegetables – was disappointing. Caldesi has always been big on roast dishes, and the chicken had been lovingly anointed with garlic, sage and rosemary, the guinea fowl left to its own devices. The latter was very toothsome, the former rather dry. Perhaps it was just the ordinariness of the dish that bothered me – as if I'd driven into the heart of the Tuscan countryside, avid for new experiences, to find myself being served roast poultry and over-roasted carrots.

Two puddings completed this mini-banquet: Tuscan plum tart with Amaretto and mascarpone cream, served up as a plate of jam tarts to be dipped in the almondy cream; and, in a final calorific assault, doughnut sticks with Strega cream and blackberry and Sambuca jam. The tarts were somewhere between a pastry and a sponge, the doughnuts were delicious, but the combination of puds seemed a little close to a WI fete or a nursery teatime.

Is this really what Tuscans eat for Sunday lunch? I've no doubt that it's all as authentic as the Palio in Siena, and I wish Sig. Caldesi buona fortuna with his enterprise. But how curious to find that so much of the Italian Sunday Lunch could be so frightfully British.

Caldesi in Campagna Old Mill Lane, Bray, Berkshire (01628 788 500)

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Around £90 for two, with wine

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