Monday, 11 May 2015
Villa di Geggiano, Chiswick
There's usually a point during a meal when you know whether things are going to end well, or if you're going to regret ever setting foot in a place. Usually that point occurs at the first bite of a starter; it is mainly about the food, after all, and if anywhere can't get that right, they may as well not bother. Sometimes you know even before you arrive; if you're being dragged to Las Iguanas on a Christmas Party for example, or (less commonly) if your blog readership votes you to a West-end themed restaurant.
On Friday, having stupidly done no research online and having allowed myself (against my better judgment) to be persuaded to deepest Chiswick to try a newish Italian restaurant, I knew as soon as I was presented with the menu. But before that, things were looking up. A lot of money has been spent converting what was once a recording studio, then a short-lived New York Italian grill, into a remarkably authentic sprawling Tuscan estate, with a large patio out front, a shop, a cosy front room with sofas and a fireplace and (most importantly) a large sky-lit restaurant stretching far, far away to yet another garden out back. It really does feel like the whole place has been lifted from the hills outside Siena, it's impressive stuff.
It's a shame, then, that the menu doesn't have a hundredth as much ambition as the décor. Essentially just a list of clichés at stinging markups, it's the kind of thing you will have seen before countless times in Italian restaurants around the country. Beef carpaccio with rocket and parmesan, burrata with tomato, spinach & ricotta ravioli, tiramisu, it's cookie-cutter stuff of the most unbelievably familiar kind.
True, there's nothing wrong with beef carpaccio or spinach and ricotta ravioli or any of those things, but to be charging these prices for something your customers will (even if they're not hopeless restaurant addicts like me) have had a million times before they will have to be very good indeed. And I'm afraid the food at Villa di Geggiano was anything but.
Four crostini with different toppings here, the best of which a sirloin tartare and the least impressive some chopped tomato and basil, but none of them inedible really. Chicken liver was a bit dense and cheap tasting, and the sirloin tartare needed more salt, but I did eat them. The bread itself tasted stale though, chewy and weak rather than delicate and brittle.
Grilled calamari was at least not chewy like it so often can be, but would have been better with a bit more aggressive crunch and colour from the grill; as it was this was just a couple of bits of oily squid, a fairly ordinary starter at a main course price of £13.
Pasta you'd hope would be a speciality of a Tuscan restaurant but was hugely disappointing. Both were rather clumsily thick, meaning to get al-dente in the middle they'd had to be still quite hard around the edges. My own prawn and spring onion ravioli contained a dry, mealy filling of indistinct flavour, in an underpowered seafood sauce. Spinach & ricotta had a similarly distressing, crumbly mouthfeel, though sage & butter is at least a more comfortable mix of ingredients than whatever was mixed with the prawn. Both came offered with a bowl of dry parmesan powder, like the 90s had never happened - if I'm paying £15 for six pieces of pasta, do you think it would be too much to expect Parmesan to be grated on from a block? Never mind taste of something?
I liked the ice cream desserts, particularly a hazelnut one and a lovely zingy citrus sorbet. The Tiramisu was far less impressive, not really any better than the one from Pizza Express but around the same price. But each were ordered mainly to fill our stomachs since what came before had been so underwhelming.
So it's not just the lack of ambition that hurt at Villa di Geggiano. Not every new Italian restaurant needs to have the innovation and fireworks of Zucca, Trullo, Artusi and the like, where Italian ingredients and methods are paired with cutting-edge London style and - crucially - a very modest asking price. For example, Bibo, not a million miles away in Putney, also serve a few classics such as buffalo mozarella and indeed spinach and ricotta ravioli, but they do it with such extraordinary skill and at such reasonable prices (their ravioli is £9, not £12) that you can't help being charmed by the whole affair.
No, I mainly didn't like Villa di Geggiano because they're serving food that isn't very good, and they're charging way too much for it. And they may have lovely staff and be blessed with one of the most handsome dining rooms in West London but that's hardly going to make up for it. Sorry.
If you stand outside Villa di Geggiano and fire up my app, it tells you to go to Bibo. You should.