For the best Italian food, forget Italy. Try London

According to the 'New Yorker' magazine a restaurant in Hammersmith beats all others. Can it be true? Polly Toynbee investigates
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The Independent Online
Where is the best Italian food in Europe? Parma? Modena? Bologna? Rome? No. It is in Hammersmith, west London, at the River Cafe, according to tomorrow's edition of the New Yorker.

The magazine has given the River Cafe its golden imprimatur, which is worth more than the often ridiculed Franco-centric Michelin stars. The River Cafe, opened in 1987 by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, has invented a style of Italian peasant food - cucina rustica - which depends on the best ingredients cooked in the simplest ways.

Its inspiration comes from home cooking in Sardinia and the South. It is less authentic than innovative, with new interpretations of country dishes, at un-peasant prices: a meal for two with a good bottle of wine costs around pounds 90.

The River Cafe also has the attribute that New Yorkers cherish most. No New Yorker likes to be seen in a restaurant where it is easy to get a table, and the River Cafe recently turned away Steffi Graf on the night she won Wimbledon (although she did want to bring a party of 20 at the last moment and no amount of proprietorial finessing could cope with that). Bookings stretch ahead to September. Any no-shows get a firm and frosty telephone call since 40 or 50 people a day are turned away.

Part of the cachet of the place is its Thames-side setting in a warehouse redesigned by the architect Richard Rogers (Ruth's husband), as part of his office complex, all stark white and burnished steel. The lawn outside overlooking the river is surrounded by tubs of herbs, pumpkins and rocket used in the kitchens.

Another draw is the clientele. Mick Jagger is often there. Tina Turner hugged the waiters and told the chef the ice-cream was the best, except for her mother's. John Mortimer, Julian Barnes, Will Self, Kenneth Branagh and Richard E Grant can all be found there. But Rogers and Gray talk with most pride of the famous cooks - Marcella Hazan, Julia Childs - and the doyenne of them all, the late Elizabeth David, who first brought Mediterranean food to the Anglo-Saxon world. She was an ecstatic admirer of River Cafe food - and she was hard to please.

Gray and Rogers's The River Cafe Cook Book has hardly been out of the bestseller lists since it was published. Its recipes are simpler than Delia Smith's, but rather more demanding in terms of ingredients: "As you must search for the best rice or pasta flour you must also find the best polenta flour. Bramanata polenta is an organic mixture of three types of maize kernels...."

The good food in Italy is all in private houses with good cooks, they say. Their lemon spaghetti recipe came from Bernardo Bertolucci's cook; it seems that real peasant food is mainly to be found among rich connoisseurs.

London, they agree, is indeed one of the great capitals of good food - alongside Sydney and San Francisco. Places without good indigenous cooking have become the best at creating modern dishes stolen eclectically from elsewhere - Thailand, North Africa, the Middle East and southern Mediterranean. Paris food they rate as among the worst - heavy, lazy, lacking in imagination. They do not rate the Marco Pierre White school: "He has great creative ideas," Ms Gray says dismissively, "but we just take the best fish on earth and do as little as possible to it."

In the nine years of the River Cafe, their influence has been extraordinary. They share the cooking themselves which is why they have no intention of opening any more restaurants. The New Yorker endorsement is gratifying - but the tables are already booked.

n Indignation at the New Yorker's suggestion was much in evidence yesterday among Italy's greatest chefs, writes Andrew Gumbel in Rome. "Whoever wrote the article in the New Yorker obviously doesn't know our restaurants very well," tut-tutted Ezio Santin, owner of the Antica Osteria del Ponte just outside Milan, which boasts three Michelin stars for dishes such as risotto with saffron and zucchini flowers, or almond-garnished crepes filled with kid's meat.

"I'm sure there are Italian restaurants abroad where you eat well, especially since Mediterranean cooking has spread pretty much everywhere," said Riccardo Monco, a second chef at the Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence. "But even the best cook couldn't prepare our specialities in London and make them taste the same."

Armando Venezia, owner of the Vecchia Lanterna in Turin, added: "I don't like talking about one restaurant being better than another, because the only way to produce really great cuisine is with humility and love. But you can't say which Italian restaurant is the best because there is no one thing called Italian cooking. There are a hundred different types.''