It's the perfect food for a recession: fast, cheap and popular. But pizza is going through a renaissance of sorts in this post-sunblush tomato world. No longer something you eat out of a box in front of the box, pizza is getting classier by the day, topped with quality ingredients and paired with Prosecco, Peroni or Pinot Nero.
Fittingly, it is leaner, thinner, crisper, and not as rich as it used to be. Even Pizza Express has just introduced a new Leggera (light) pizza with a hole in the middle filled with salad.
Ironically, this food for the people is now getting more expensive as well. But I can't help it. My heart leaps when I walk into an Italian restaurant with a pizza oven. Suddenly there is energy, heat, fire, colour and movement, with the sliding of shovels, and vigorous slicing, and much twirling and stretching of dough in the time-honoured movements known as la gestualità. And so it is at Il Baretto in Marylebone, where restaurateur Arjun Waney – having done his Asian thing with Zuma and Roka, and his French thing with La Petite Maison – is now busy doing his Italian thing.
This place has been called more names than a Gordon Ramsay apprentice: Sol e Stella, La Spighetta, Giusto, and now Il Baretto. Although the basement restaurant has been recently revamped with soft lighting, come-hither walls of wine and low-level charcoal banquettes, it would still be just another windowless room without the handsome, domed, wood-fired pizza oven as its heart and hearth, here since the 1996 La Spighetta incarnation, when Giorgio Locatelli was consulting.
Not wishing to let the oven go to waste, I kick off with a pizza Margherita (£9), the simplest on offer. It is thin-based, bubble-crusted and topped with a nicely acidic tomato concassé, but the base lacks character, without any flavours of smoke, wheat or yeast. It needs a bit of roughing up with fruity olive oil and scorch. A "carpaccio" di porchetta (£9) isn't raw, thank the lord, but is merely thinly sliced, rolled and stuffed roast pork with a good, herby flavour. The only flaw is the idea. To slice porchetta this finely, it has to be fridge-cold, whereas good porchetta should never see the inside of a refrigerator.
The place is a blur of activity as ebullient general manager Umberto Scomparin, formerly at Spiga, Teca and Allora, scampers up the stairs to the chic little ground-floor cicchetti (snacketti) bar; and black-clad waitresses stream out of the kitchen bearing platters of grills, pasta and salt-baked sea bass. The sweet-talking sommelier knows her Italians, so I avoid the big-hit Super Tuscans in favour of a crowd-pleasing, good-value 2007 La Salette Valpolicella at £22.
There is a very Italian sense of chaos about Il Baretto that runs a fine line between charming and frustrating. The menu lists herbed lamb cutlets done "al forno", but they come grilled instead of oven-roasted; fat, juicy, pink, lamby and beautiful. A special of sea-bream fillet is actually sea bass (£15) with a black olive dressing, but it is not so special, anyway. The flesh is mushy and lacking joy; the frilly leaves of lollo rosso a lazy accompaniment. To finish, a slab of Piemontese chocolate bonet (£5), a modest, blancmange-like milky pudding, is outclassed by a wonderfully smooth caramel ice-cream.
It's a simple place, pumping out fresh, colourful, crowd-pleasing Italian food in a smart-casual room to which you could just as happily take your kids or your colleagues. The kitchen needs to watch that "fashionably light" doesn't get confused with "bland", but Il Baretto has the makings of a fun Italian restaurant. And Arjun Waney knows how to turn any room into a party, so I expect the pizza oven won't be the only thing that's hot at Il Baretto by summer.
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
Il Baretto, 43 Blandford Street, London W1, tel: 020 7486 7340. Lunch and dinner Mon-Sat. Around £90 for two, including wine and service
Read Terry Durack's food blog at independent.co.uk/terrydurack
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