Meander through London on the trail of great Italian food

Julian Harris
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London Restaurant Festival’s Ciccheti Trail is a foodie’s dream

THE PUB crawl, once a concept that filled my youthful soul with an inordinate degree of excitement, nowadays seems somewhat antiquated. Is this my fault – is it simply that I have grown into a dour 30-something severely lacking any kind of alacrity? Or is the practice of skipping between bars really a relic of an era when thousands of people – most of them adults – spent actual money on a single by Chumbawamba?

Or, a third option – are people now looking for a more sophisticated and sensible equivalent, a variety of pub crawl where the name of the activity doesn’t allude to the method of transportation you’ll be using to get home come the end of the night?

Back in June, City A.M.’s cocktail guru Philip Salter proposed a “cocktail bar amble” as a so-called thinking man’s pub crawl, but this week I decided to be even more civilised by joining something called the Cicchetti Trail. This is one of four offerings as part of the latest London Restaurant Festival, which involve hopping between restaurants where they give you not only a drink but also a bit of food to soak up the booze.

Also available are the alliterative Japanese Journey and Tapas Tour, as well as – for those willing to part with £125 each – a Gourmet Odyssey that involves being carried around in a Routemaster bus and sipping champagne up the Shard.

Our own trail began in the plush surrounds of Theo Randall’s establishment at the InterContinental hotel on Park Lane where we were greeted with a bellini and a couple of table snacks consisting of courgette tempura and a well-executed bowl of squid salad.

Cicchetti, the theme of this afternoon stroll, is essentially an Italian version of tapas – small and simple dishes to casually pick on while you drink and chat.

The first pit-stop left significant holes in our stomachs but this was presumably the point, and encouraged us to head off on a swift walk along Piccadilly to a sparkly joint named after precisely this kind of food – San Carlo Cicchetti.

Here we entered a more classically Italian environment, with clattering bar staff and the loud chatter of a room packed with customers.

Thankfully San Carlo also lives up to the most important Italian stereotype – that of producing uncomplicated yet excellent food. Here I was presented with a chunky tentacle of an octopus on a chopping board that was superbly tender with just enough smokiness picked up from the charcoal grill.

Next was Mele e Pere on Brewer Street, a small restaurant of basic appearance that feels more like a cafe. Nonetheless the food was restaurant-quality, a bowl of almost miniature pasta bits with king prawn reminding me of saffron-infused seafood risottos that I used to make.

Intriguingly they also gave us glasses of red and white vermouth – and as my guest was unimpressed with hers, I happily knocked back both and marched on to venue number four.

A healthy walk north to Charlotte Place was rewarded with the day’s highlight. In Parma is a simple place with a simple name – you sit at a wooden table that they fill with cheese and ham and some bits of bread. The waiter gives a brief talk about how the products are sourced; and while I’m not a fan of boasts about “authenticity”, it’s extremely difficult to argue with In Parma’s ethos once you’ve started to dig in.

The food is accompanied by a sparkling dry red wine idiosyncratically served in a little white bowl they call a fojeta. Novelty aside, it nicely compliments the frankly exceptional varieties of parmesan, creamy gorgonzola, mozzarella, parma ham and mortadella they bring over from Italy for our enjoyment.

Here’s a tip – go to In Parma some time. Here’s another tip – don’t go to Polpo in Covent Garden. Polpo, alas, was my next stop and served inexcusably poor arancini along with what can best be described as a mound of mashed-up peas on a bit of toast. Perhaps, after an afternoon of drinking, I should have been grateful for this dish for providing one of my five-a-day, but that’s where the gratitude ends.

Meanwhile, the arancini – fried balls of risotto that are supposed to be creamy and cheesey and subtle and indulgent – tasted as if the chef had emptied a whole jar of dried oregano into some leftover rice before rolling it into little spheres of pre-emptive vengeance against any approaching restaurant critics. If so, it worked.

Polpo was a blip on an afternoon of otherwise decent grub, which ended at Massimo near Trafalgar Square where the food – I had a small fillet of sea bass in rice paper with braised fennel – was as elegant as the large neoclassical setting of this high-end venture.

As other groups from the trail gathered on nearby tables, happily toasting the finale with clinks of delicate glass, it occurred to me that maybe growing up isn’t such a bad thing after all. Perhaps this is a preferable way to end a day’s drinking rather than falling over outside Angel tube station having “conquered” the Upper Street pub crawl.

It’s also a fairly pleasant way of forcing yourself to try out some new restaurants. And for a relatively small amount of time and money, you may discover a couple worth returning to; and – even more importantly – which to avoid. Find out more at