Despite its ubiquity on our high streets and in our shops, most of us know very little about real Italian cuisine. This is mostly the fault of pasta and pizza which, being relatively easy to cook well with only a few basic ingredients, have become a British staple. Across the country, people are munching through endless variants of these two dishes and thinking, deep down, that what they're really tasting amid the tomato and basil and mozzarella is a distillation of Italy.
What with being a lucky rascal, I went to Florence not all that long ago, and sat in a restaurant which may be my favourite on mainland Europe. It's called Cibreo. The menu there is an exquisite selection of poached fishes, broccoli emulsions, aromatic marinades and cured meats. The emphasis was on freshness of ingredient and stern avoidance of overly processed dishes. That is: exactly the opposite of what you get in your local Pizza Express, never mind Pizza Hut. Italian cuisine is subtle, textured, romantic; the version we eat here is generally clogged, clumpy and full of cholesterol.
This is particularly true at supposedly high-end Italian restaurants, such as Locanda Locatelli, which is a joyless experience if ever I knew one. Your best bet if you're desperate for an affordable Italian, in the capital at least, is somewhere such as Ciao Bella on Lamb's Conduit Street. Cotidie aims to be something in between. It misses.
Cotidie means everyday. This is not an everyday experience. It has a long bench lining one side with what look like mini-streetlights illuminating the wall above. Mirrors, leather, expensive upholstery and waiters who look like Javier Bardem make this a classy joint, the sort of place you expect to receive an offer you can't refuse. This is intentionally distinct from the churn of your local Pizza Express, which is intentionally a McDonald's for the middle classes. There's nothing fast food about this place.
You can get a lunch platter of small dishes for £25 – which is a corporate, as opposed to business, lunch. There's a tasting menu for £65. Dominic and I are going for the more basic menu, taking three courses along the way, from a selection of "pesce", "carne", and "verdure", each offering six dishes.
The vegetables range from stewed artichoke with oregano bruschetta (£10) to dull, braised seasonal vegetables with Piadina flatbread (£15). The best of the vegetables is the fried courgette medallions with raspberry-vinegar dressing, ricotta and sun-dried tomatoes (£12). The courgette is blissfully free of grease, and the raspberry flavour brings out the best of the ricotta.
The fish dishes range from an octopus and potato salad (£11), which is unspectacular, to pan-seared sea bass and aubergine cake with buffalo mozzarella and basil, which is worth about half the £29 charged here. Of the meat dishes, the scrambled egg in its own shell with hazelnuts and Gorgonzola fondue is worth trying at £9 (though why it's in the "carne" category is anyone's guess), and Dominic's grilled Angus beef fillet with chard and Béarnaise sauce is magnificent, though at £28 the most expensive of the "carne" courses.
Desserts are a highlight. Fried beignets (doughnuts, basically) caramelised with orange zest and vanilla custard are most expensive at £10, and the tiramisu at £7.50 is superb: light, beautifully soaked sponge with a generous dusting rather than mere sprinkling of chocolate. A highly satisfying conclusion to the meal.
The wine list is, in keeping with the rest of the meal, over-priced and so without any affordable triumphs. Dominic makes the excellent point that the meal as a whole could only be described as a disappointment in relative terms: were we to eat this in Italy, we'd think it routine and passable, but the fact that we have come out for what is meant to be a fine-dining experience in London means at this price it should be better.
Frankly, I would expect more from the much garlanded chef patron, Bruno Barbieri, one of his country's finest exports. At approaching £200 for a basic meal for two (albeit it one with a couple of bottles of wine), his place isn't worth it. I've just been online and, if you're thinking about booking for late summer, you can get to Florence and back for half that.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Cotidie 50 Marylebone High Street, London W1, 020 7258 9878, cotidierestaurant.com. About £180 for two with two bottles of wine
Caldesi in Campagna
Old Mill Lane, Bray, Berks, tel: 01628 788 500
With its Italian family welcome and excellent cuisine, Giancarlo Caldesi's two-year-old Tuscan is a destination with which no one finds any real fault
The River Café
Thames Wharf, Rainville Road, London W6, tel: 020 7386 4201
Quality is absolute at Ruth Rogers' riverside canteen, world-famous for seasonal fare that's the quintessence of Italian cuisine. The bill, however, can render the experience bittersweet
54 Curzon Street, London W1, tel: 020 7629 2742
Innovative cooking – from a Japanese chef! – has made Henry Togna's newcomer a welcome addition to Mayfair
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2012' www.hardens.com