I might be showing my pathetic inexperience and naïveté here, but as far as I can tell it’s uncommon to come across a properly decent local Italian restaurant in London. The gulf between what is served in the trattorias of Campania and what is served in basically anywhere outside of an EC post code is staggering. It seems bizarrely difficult to get right, let alone impress. Maybe it’s too much to expect from a local Italian, a country whose food has been homogenised and anglicised into oblivion the last 50 years.
It’s very quiet in Italian Bistro, a name that thuds into your brain with all the grace of Klan wizard in a monster truck, at 7:15PM. Quiet even for Streatham High Road. My entrance was met with the stares of three men waiting for their dinner partners to arrive, sitting in the hot silence. I was the Meadow Soprano to their expectant Tony. Hopefully it won’t end the same way.
It really was very hot in there. Too hot. So hot that at the end of the meal, the owner-waiter asked of us: ‘Guys… Is it too hot in here?’, like he simply couldn’t tell and was having to crowdsource the temperature. Sticky were my pits and sticky was the table, as if it had been rubbed down with the goo from an ergonomic mouse mat. You know the ones I mean, right?
Sorry. The heat.
I thought the heat was coming from a wood fire pizza oven in the back, but that was an optical illusion – it was just a serving window. While it was temping to order one of their crispy pies, I decided against it, purely because it is so hard to fuck up a pizza. Even shit pizzas are basically decent. It’s too easy.
‘Easy’ is an accusation that could be levelled at the starters that me and my dining partner had, though only one really did its job. The bruschetta – though, shall we say, original in its presentation – was well seasoned with plump, juicy bifurcated cherry tomatoes. The fried mozzarella did not please in the same way. A fairly tasteless ball of whatever with some pizza sauce and a decaying rocket salad.
The starter plates had yet to be cleared when the mains arrived, but this kind of ‘what do you want from me?’ service has its place in the world, and is charming depending on your mood. Two large wines in it was fine by me. My dish, a gargantuan plate of sweet sausage and tomato penne, my partners’ a sea bass fillet with potatoes and olives.
The quarry of al dente penne hid a lot of the Italian sausage, and as a result there was a lot of sifting. It didn’t quite elicit a bellissimo, but it was hearty and filling, drenched in cheese and enjoyable while swilling a nice Puglian red.
The sea bass, on the other hand, was quite something. Aside from the skin which needed a good old fashioned crisping, it was beautifully light, with crispy rustic potatoes and tart cherry tomatoes. It was a real bit of Lady and the Tramp duality, the fine fish and the mound of sausage pasta.
Both the starters and the mains were like dishes from different restaurants, performances pieces from two separate Masterchef contestants. I watched the owner-waiter suppress a sigh as someone inexplicably asked for parmesan to be shaved onto their mussels provencal, and wondered if he just couldn’t be arsed with it today. It was too hot.
While it wasn’t a completely edifying experience I won’t hold it against Italian Bistro. They clearly know what they’re doing, though perhaps they need a reminder as to why they’re doing it. I would return, though I might give the pizza a go. Maybe a sea bass pizza, with as much parmesan as you can give me, garçon!
Dinner for two including drinks was £37.