I spoke too soon. In my last review I congratulated myself on having recently found myself in some fine restaurants. I blessed my luck – three or four hits in a row and no duds. Well, that's hubris for you. The Foodie Gods are always listening for signs of smugness among reviewers, and they certainly took their revenge this week. They sent me to dine at Vico.
The place has no obvious connection with Giambattista Vico, the Enlightenment thinker, philosopher and historian beyond the fact that they're both Italian. But the pedigree behind Vico is impressive. It's a new initiative from Jacob Kennedy and Victor Hugo, the chaps behind Bocca di Lupo, which opened seven years ago in the seedy regions behind Shaftesbury Avenue. It offered authentically local dishes from Italian regions from Piedmont to Puglia, and spotlit some of the wilder shores of cucina rustica, from sautéed sweetbreads with deep-fried globe artichokes to sanguinaccio, chocolate parfait made with black pudding, apparently a special treat for the lucky peasants of Abruzzo. They also featured an adventurous, all-Italian wine list.
Kennedy and Hugo later opened a gelateria called Gelupo, down the road from Bocca di Lupo and both places proved immensely popular. So, having heard that Vico combined a restaurant and an ice-cream parlour, I strode through Soho with a spring in my step.
The first thing that stopped me in my tracks was the size of the place. It's bloody enormous. The frontage of Vico wraps itself around a whole section of Cambridge Circus, starting in West Street and finishing in Charing Cross Road. A long marble fascia carries a list of treats in store – "pizze sorbetti dolci gelati arancini fritti antipasti granita" – while a central triangular pelmet offers the motto "dolce et deliciosum," a mangling of "dulce et decorum est", the Roman poet Horace's line about how sweet it is to die for your country. Hilarious.
The second thing that startles you is that, having spent a fortune on this bombastic simulacrum of a Roman temple, the owners have scribble-painted the letters of VICO across the big front windows, like graffiti vandals. I think it's a doomed attempt to look both neo-classical and "street." Perhaps they're still fine-tuning the enterprise. (They announced a "soft launch" on 28/29 August and have officially opened, but they were still offering half-price meals when I went on 2 September.)
Kennedy and Hugo promise the new venture will deal in "affordable street food". They also promise that the décor will "make you feel you're wandering in an Italian piazza". One look through the window tells you you're actually wandering into a rather peculiar branch of McDonalds.
It's hideous. From a central black pole, harsh naked lightbulbs illuminate an arrangement of curved, wipe-clean wooden planks at which you eat perched on blue stools. The food is arrayed behind glass on a long, yellow counter. There's no menu. You have to peer through the glass to read what's on offer, on little bits of paper. There are six varieties of pizza (how long have they been sitting there?) and bruschetta with cherry tomatoes and anchovies, skewers of melon and parma ham, skewers of squid with potatoes – none of it terribly inspiring. But mostly there are balls: arancini balls, deep-fried beetroot balls, deep-fried balls of lasagna. I asked the woman behind the counter if anything was freshly made. Oh yes, she replied, there are prawns and whitebait and some cod. Four minutes later they'd been tossed in a light batter and fried. The cod was soft and mushy rather than firm. The whitebait tasted of nothing. The prawns had been fried with their heads, tails and shells on, a uniquely pointless exercise.
A combination skewer of meats – tongue, chicken, brisket and cotechino pork – offered four cold, deep-fried lumps of dried-up dreck; the chicken reminded me of Chicken Nuggets, only less appetising. "This is Italian fast food," said my daughter Clementine. "But who on earth would want to eat that?"
The main emotion I felt at Vico was incredulous amazement – at the huge energy that's gone into creating this big draughty temple, and the pathetic food offering at its heart. I kept asking – is that it? It's all so grim and mean-spirited. It's also howlingly unwelcoming. Nobody greets you or takes care of you. If you want a napkin, you have to find one yourself. Ditto the (plastic) cutlery, should you not fancy eating lasagna with your fingers. If you want a wine glass (they sell two wines, house white and house red, both rubbish,) someone will eventually indicate the little beakers jumbled together in a bin. I've seen more appealing soup kitchens. µ
A new fast-food Italian with excellent pedigree was startling – for all the wrong reasons
Vico, 1 Cambridge Circus, London, WC2H 8PA. Around £20 a head, before drinks
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