Latium, London

The oxtail, the pig cheeks, the bucatini - there's nothing like eating in Rome. Shame then, that dinner at Latium is so much more like eating in England
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Tender, milk-sweet roast abbachio (baby lamb), the chops as big as your little finger; crisped, fried artichokes; tripe cooked with mint and pecorino; bowls of rich chicken broth laced with skeins of egg; oxtail braised for hours with carrots and onions; fat, hollow bucatini pasta tossed with cured pig cheek. When in Rome, eat as the Romans eat, and you'll never want to come home.

Tender, milk-sweet roast abbachio (baby lamb), the chops as big as your little finger; crisped, fried artichokes; tripe cooked with mint and pecorino; bowls of rich chicken broth laced with skeins of egg; oxtail braised for hours with carrots and onions; fat, hollow bucatini pasta tossed with cured pig cheek. When in Rome, eat as the Romans eat, and you'll never want to come home.

But home you are, so you pathetically leap on a new restaurant opposite the Sanderson hotel by the name of Latium hoping for a night of Roman cooking and bacchanalia. Latium being the ancient name for Lazio, the capital of which is Rome, and the chef Maurizio Morelli being born in Lazio at Latina, I'm there already.

Morelli cooked at the Halkin and the Lanesborough hotels as well as the modern Italians Ibla and Paolo before opening his own place with sommelier and wine importer Antonio Cerilli, so I should have known better. The menu is fairly typical of the new Italian-fusion, the fusion in this case being Italy and England. They join to form a new type of Itlish cuisine, combining high technique and fashionable ingredients in the nuova cucina style.

There is buffalo mozzarella salad, risotto, seafood-filled ravioli, pasta with crab and a variety of heavy-on-the-protein mains such as beef with sautéed potatoes, spinach and button onions, and roast partridge with wild mushrooms, sprouts, broccoli and grapes.

The two waiting staff are neither here nor there, so it is up to sommelier, Cerilli, to imbue the place with a little Italian dolce vita, which he does em- phatically in opera-buff style. He is generous with his attention, his good humour and his wine knowledge, as well as providing decent prices and fine glassware. The 200-strong wine list is as all-Italian as he is, and so I end up with a perfectly nice, if not fabulous, Ca Rossa Nebbiola 2002 (£27) from Piemonte.

The kitchen is generous, too, sending out pre- and post-nibblies without charge. Pre- is a platter of cocktail bruschetta bites topped with taleggio and pancetta, smoked salmon and cream cheese - the sort of stuff you probably ate a lot of at Christmas parties.

A starter of seafood ravioli is a clear statement of intent: four pretty pastel pasta parcels lined up in a row, each filled with a different fish. The black squid-ink ravioli comes with monkfish, the green spinach ravioli with brill, the golden saffron with salmon and the orange carrot with tuna, all napped with a butter sauce and sprinkled with shavings of Sardinian dried mullet roe (bottarga). It could have done without the dramatic squiggles of squid ink, but it is very well done, in that each little pasta pocket tastes fresh and distinctive.

A salad of veal tongue, celery and tuna sauce is a chic variation on the classic Northern Italian vitello tonnato; the thin slices of tongue overlapping themselves under a lightly piquant coating sauce edged with a clock face of capers. Flavours are gentle and compatible, although the tongue feels a little cold against my own warm one.

Most main courses appear to be served in a meat-and-three-veg manner that's more British than Italian. Stewed pork belly comes wrapped in wilted radicchio teamed with fairly undistinguished mashed potato, but what should have been luscious, unctuous and juicy pork is just a dry pork stew.

A risotto made with red wine and flavoured with pancetta and topped with a fright wig of red radicchio is a study in "rosso", the same colour as the Nebbiolo wine. The rice lives close to the edge of being overly al dente, but makes a nice change from the all-too-familiar rice-pudding risotto and rice-cake risotto, being pleasantly gloopy with a real lived-in flavour.

A Neapolitan sfogliatelle pastry cornet doesn't do much, filled as it is with pastry cream and criss-crossed with chocolate and clementines on a stone cold plate.

It's a funny place, Latium, with its absolute lack of anything remotely Roman. The plain, no-nonsense space is fringed with a solid dark banquette, lined with double-clothed tables and decorated with sepia-tinted photographs of Italian food. The decor highlight seems to be a large coatrack that jangles like a Mike Oldfield composition.

I can forgive it for not being Roman because it does what it does - nuova cucina - reasonably well. There is a real freshness and lightness to the food, a caring hand with saucery and fine pasta-making, and, I suspect, an attempt at keeping everything low in fat.

But Latium hasn't replaced not being Roman with anything else, which makes it feel a bit directionless. It just does the sort of food young Italian chefs think they have to do in London, without doing it any better than, say, Locanda Locatelli or Zafferano, or with any more character than Assagi or Enoteca Turi or with any more style than the River Cafe or Cibo. To be fair, other critics have raved about the food at Latium. But then other critics have all been British, and may not have been craving abbacchio and carciofi. Ah well, when in Britain...

13 Latium 21 Berners Street, London W1, tel: 020 7323 9123. Open for lunch and dinner Mon-Sat. Two-course dinner, 3;19.50, three courses £23.50, four £28.50, plus wine and service.

Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets

Second helpings...

Other recently arrived Italians

Manicomio 85 Duke of York Square, King's Road, London SW3, tel: 020 7730 3366 Manicomio is Italian for madhouse, but this is less a definition of the place it is now than the place it was then, when it was the Royal Military Asylum. Now, it's a chirpy new Italian deli and restaurant run by Andrew and Ninai Zarach of the highly regarded Machiavelli food import company; so the produce is as good as you can get. Expect terrific pasta, well-made risotto, good seafood and the inevitable tiramisu.

Essenza 210 Kensington Park Road, London W11, tel: 020 7792 1066 From those wonderful people who gave Notting Hill the fanatically supported Osteria Basilico and Mediterraneo, comes a shiny new bambino. Essenza is classy, intimate and as cute as a bottone, dishing up plenty of Italian charm and good, solid cooking: buffalo mozzarella with grilled peppers, tagliatelle with funghi porcini and a generous mixed seafood grill.

Carluccio's Caffe Bicester Village, Bicester, Oxfordshire, tel: 01869 247 651 Antonio and Priscilla Carluccio's burgeoning caffe and deli empire does a major public service, bringing great Italian produce and reliable casalinga cooking to the masses at masses-friendly prices. Now it's Oxfordshire's turn. The 13th Carluccio's Caffe opened in mid-November in the Bicester Designer Retail Village, and wisely follows the same recipe.

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