Hundred-year-old fish cakes, but no coriander

Stephen Bayley visits an Italian restaurant tucked away at the dog end of Battersea where passion is the main ingredient
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Indy Lifestyle Online

One of the finest restaurants in Rome is near an abattoir and serves offal best described as astonishing. One of the most interesting restaurants in London is very near Battersea Dogs' Home. Happily, there's no apparent influence. It serves a version of Italian food best described as exceptional. Rome's Checchino dal 1887 is very conservative; SW8's Metrogusto is nothing of the sort. It impressively shows how Italian cooking can mutate and evolve.

One of the finest restaurants in Rome is near an abattoir and serves offal best described as astonishing. One of the most interesting restaurants in London is very near Battersea Dogs' Home. Happily, there's no apparent influence. It serves a version of Italian food best described as exceptional. Rome's Checchino dal 1887 is very conservative; SW8's Metrogusto is nothing of the sort. It impressively shows how Italian cooking can mutate and evolve.

Metrogusto, on a dingy stretch of Battersea Park Road, is one of those places that has taken advantage - and, indeed, possession - of an old pub that came on to the market after the relaxation of the brewery laws in the 1990s. Its neighbours are a used-car lot, a dodgy-kebab-style thingy and an old Board school now gentrified into privacy to cater for the enormous middle-class tribes who patiently occupy this area between university and their eventual emigration to the country. Around here there are lots of gussied-up pubs - all that wood-burning stuff, interesting wines, Thai fish cakes and serious breads with bits in - but none quite like Metrogusto.

Before you even get to the food and drink, there's the art. It's not the sort of middle-brow junk some places use to connote "modernity", but rather chewy and authentic stuff: a huge moody canvas by Nicholas Jolly (rather in the style of Paula Rego) dominates the room and has found its way on to the menu.

The furniture and lighting also show signs of commitment. There are limitations to what you can do with the floor plan of a pub and, environmentally speaking, I wouldn't say Metrogusto is either specially comfortable or beautiful, but it is not boring. The sole irritation is an annoying logo which employs an inverted map of Italy, although it is entirely possible that this is to suggest a reversal of conventional assumptions.

But even before you get to the art, there's the front-of-house. I am a complete and helpless sucker for the Italian way, but I do find it thrilling on a wet and windy night to have a diabolically beaming maestro open the door and mutter very beautifully "Sta sera tira tanto vento", sort of Roman slang for cats and dogs. Metrogusto's cook, Antonello Serra, has his part to play later in this story, but Ambro Ianeselli is the public face of the genius that presides here. Ianeselli - big shirts, braces, complicated whiskers, ridiculously handsome - has effortless charm, obvious intelligence and a relaxed style. There's none of this hovering to take your order. He gives you a wink and says "you call me".

The menu changes monthly and is written in a cheerful hybrid, which arbitrarily dips in and out of English and Italian. So you get zuppa di fresh vegetables (£5); salsiccia della casa with borlotti beans (£11.50); guinea fowl alle erbe miste (£12.50). Ingredients are high quality and sometimes unusual. "There is", my guest, a television cook, said with evident relief, "not a hint of coriander." But there was a lot of bitter honey around in October. It turns up in an unusual avocado salad (£6.50), in the struffoli, Campanian fritters served with a generous amount of flawless ham (£7.50) and in a strange pudding of fried ravioli filled with cheese (£4).

My char-grilled veal al sugo di Milano (£14.50) was a surprise: chunks of darkish meat, not a blanched sheet. It certainly tasted of cow, but was perhaps under-seasoned. Also coming with an expression of surprise, the fish cakes !!! with lentils and cumin (£10.50) have the exclamation marks to make the point that Italians had crocchetti di pesceseven a hundred years before The Ivy. Alternatively there is usually also a pair of simple but perfect pizzas on the menu.

The wine list is mind-bogglingly curious. Even if you were secretly consulting Burton Anderson's authoritative Vino under the table, you'd still have to call on Ambro to navigate this gazetteer of Italian agriculture. The house whites are Thou Chardonnay '98 by Bava (£11.50) and Sauvignon del Friuli by Forchir (£15.50). Reds are a Barbera d'Asti, also by Bava, (£11.50) and Rosso Marche Pignocco by S Barbara (£16.00). We drank Bruno Broglia's Gavi di Gavi (£26.50), the astonishingly powerful 1994 Turriga (off the list, but you can get the '95 for £49.50) and Falesco's Montiano '96 for a pound less. Metrogusto is the sort of place where odd bottles of strange digestivo appear, unbidden. We were offered Passito di Pantelleria, very sweet and unctuous, and Barolo Chinato Cocchi, like mulled wine, only dark, cool and delicious.

Metrogusto may be too self-conscious for some; Battersea may be off-putting for others. The food here is sometimes too mannered. Not all the dishes are always a success. But it is a restaurant run with authentic passion and great style by people who know exactly what they are doing. I adore its quirkiness. Ambro said with a shrug: "We buy very cheap coffee, but have an expensive machine."

There is nowhere I would rather go to eat.

Metrogusto, 153 Battersea Park Road, London SW8 (020-7720 0204) Mon-Thur lunch 12-2pm, dinner 6-10.30pm, Fri, Sat 12-3, 6.30-11pm. Closed until 4 January. Major cards except AmEx and Diners accepted. Limited disabled access. Now also at 13 Theberton Street, London N1 (020-7226 9400)

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