Authenticity seems to be a major concern in some Italian restaurants. Their menus, though usually in English, are suffused with superflous italian phrases, a sort of name dropping which serves as proof of Italianness. But they never go whole-hog, always including the English translation of difficult words like “Carne (Meat)” and “Dolce (Desserts)”, settling safely for a kind of ‘foreign-light’, ‘diet-italian’ which is still palatable for English speakers who are apparently (and upsettingly) monoglotonous even in their restaurant languages. Dishes which purport to be “della nonna,” “della casa,” “dello chef” abound, as if taking a perfectly appetizing sort of food (penne, or tiramisu) and telling us who or what has made it somehow appreciates its value.

Little Italy has a confusing relationship with authenticity. Recently opened on Logies Lane, it now inhabits the same building which has been occupied by a successive string of bland cafes. It is the second restaurant in town, after Bella Italia, which feels compelled to divulge in its name the type of food it serves; would it not become obvious once we went inside?

The interior of both restaurants is a good approximation of what would happen if you built Disneyland in Italy; both garish design jobs that appeal to just about every imaginible stereotype. That being said, the food here is far better than at Bella Italia, where your pasta arrives at your table looking bare, with a dollop of occasionally cold sauce on top.

At Little Italy, images from The Godfather, flags from several Italian football teams and Ferrari logos are amongst the kitsch memorabilia, which provides the bulk of the nuanced decoration. I don’t think any of this is really to the detriment of the place; in fact, they seem to have done their market research well. For this generation of students, kitsch sells. It is cute, unpretentious, ironic and the crutch of any studio-indie movie.

On to the food. A dead giveaway is that there is cream in the carbonara, a typically English twist on a recipe that is only cheapened when its original ingredients are supplemented like this. Italian cooking has mastered the art of the simple dish. It’s therefore rather unsettling to work through a menu populated by dishes which require two or three line descriptions, often including “rich” and “creamy” sauces. Fortunately, less complex staples, like penne all’arrabiata and amatriciana, were also included. Unfortunately, my budget didn’t allow me to sample the bistecca (steak!), which Italians do so well on the grill with few accoutrements; Little Italy’s, though, comes with yet another rich and creamy sauce.

I chose the tagliatelle dello chef, which was a hybrid between an amatriciana sauce and a red fruitti di mare sauce, with pancetta and prawns. It was also understandably the choice of several tables around me. The dish was solid, with a satisfyingly thick yet subtle sauce. Yes, maybe Italians wouldn’t combine ‘surf ‘n’ turf’ in this way, and they probably wouldn’t suggest adding parmeggiano to their seafood dishes, but just as I wouldn’t judge the success of a movie by its fidelity to the book, so here I won’t pretend to size this food up against some mythical original.

There is no original, this restaurant is pastiche in the post-modern sense; an imitation of a stereotype.
In this sense Little Italy is a post-modern restaurant and self-consciously so. My dessert, a tiramisu, was served with a small Italian flag pitched in its centre. It was a charming, tongue-in-cheek touch which is an apt synecdoche for the entire restaurant. It’s about providing the experience of a vague, fictitious notion of Italian culture, cobbled together from various sources and loudly displayed but always with a knowing wink. The owner strides around the restaurant in that authoritative and semi-suave way you expect of an Italian maitre d’, passing on hushed commands to his staff. His banter is punctuated with a lexicon of about five Italian words, yet the debate I’ve had with a few students who have also visited the restaurant centres on whether he is, in fact, Italian at all.

But this is missing the point. It doesn’t matter whether the owner is Italian or not, because anyone who goes into a restaurant called Little Italy knows they are going to enjoy an affected version of whatever one imagines Big Italy to be, and in that lies its charm. It’s a cute place, the food really isn’t bad and it can definitely compete with Pizza Express and Bella Italia in terms of pricing. Pastas start at £7.50, although, as you’d expect, items from the grill will set you back around £18.00.

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