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Diners from Hell. By James Pembroke

Blog | By James Pembroke | Oct 04, 2023


Have you sat next to a tapper at dinner recently?

You’ll know if you have because you’ll have bruising between your shoulder and elbow, on the arm nearest to them.

Tappers like to ensure that they have your full attention by tapping (and, even, slapping) your upper arm despite there being no chance of your escaping the table.

They are also very fond of their own jokes and like to bring a firm literality to the concept of delivering a punchline. They are the types who throw their heads back in hysterics at the most meagre of jokes, all the time tapping you as if practising their back hand. They kill pleasure.

On the Venn Diagram of painful dinner companions, they enjoy a massive overlap with the other tribes of darkness: people who can’t make their mind up about what to order; those who scan their plates for any chance of an allergic reaction (‘Me and parsley?’); who are full after the starter; who loved the previous owners; who ‘never normally come out this far’; who only want one glass of wine; who choose the restaurant because it’s the closest cuisine to the one they enjoyed on their recent holiday ‘but nothing like as good’; who, when you ask for salt and pepper, say you should really taste the food first. I could go on.

None of this has anything to do with the three Italian restaurants I tried recently – but be vigilant. Choose your dinner companions as carefully as your venue. La Goccia is part of the Petersham Nurseries township in Covent Garden.

It’s mostly set in a courtyard, which is great because, when you’re outside, there’s nothing wrong with staring at other tables. Inside, and you’re a gawper.

Don’t over-order. Two plates each. Start off with one of their coccoli (‘cuddles’ in Italian; deep-fried dough balls in English) with mortadella. Then a plate of their crunchy-fried chicken, followed by rigatoni with slow-cooked beef ragu. It’s possible to pay less than £100 for two.

This was good news because I had just paid double for the same number of small dishes at Il Borro, ‘the Tuscan bistro’, in Mayfair, where I was lulled by the promise of ‘farm-to-table’ dining.

Who was it who decided that you can charge a fortune for Italian food, if you say ‘It’s real’ enough times? Was it American Ruth Rogers, who will sell you an artichoke salad for £28 at River Café?

Italians have always prided themselves on being the masters of the margin: pizza, pasta, ice cream. So how can Il Borro charge £27.50 for a mushroom risotto? The cheapest bottle was £50. I rarely list ‘one to avoid’ but don’t be taken in. Or out.

Then I joined a Scottish soldier who I thought would love beef. I had been wanting to try out Macellaio, the small chain of Italian beef restaurants, purveyors of the Fassona breed from the Genovese hills. They’re very on-message: huge fridges stuffed with crimson carcasses, at which Desperate Dan would have baulked, and candles fuelled not by wax but by lard. Their Olympian steak tartare is minced by omnipresent butchers who would readily chop a tapper’s hand off were they to ask, in homage to Keith in Nuts in May, ‘Does this steak come from an accredited herd?’