Fornata joins Italian legion

Steve Dinneen
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15 Kingly Street, London W1B 5PS Tel:020 8181 8887
FOOD ***

Cost per person without wine: £20-25

When Casanova came to London in 1763, Soho was his first port of call. At just 38, he was already renowned across Europe as a distinguished polymath. His spheres of expertise included mathematics, chemistry, medicine, music and poetry.

He had worked as a trainee priest, a soldier, a gambler, a composer and an author, achieving what most of his peers would fail to in ten lifetimes. But to most people, he is known for one thing – his art of seduction. And it was in Soho that he honed this most enduring part of his legacy. He collected women as he had collected professions, staking out London’s popular Venetian balls, attracted to the intrigue, passion and fire of the love affair.

He prized the chase above all else, pursuing complex – often attached – women, and in the process guaranteed his legend. To recuperate from his affairs, he frequented Soho’s plethora of Italian cafes and restaurants (after being kept waiting by a woman on his first day in London, he is said to have stormed straight to the nearest coffee shop).

The Italian influence on Soho goes back centuries, with immigrants flocking to the dishevelled district, known for its cheap rents, red light district, opium dens and general air of debauchery.

And where Italians go, their dislike of British cuisine (insert quotation marks here if you’re Italian) inevitably follows and Italian eateries have been a staple of the area ever since. The new generation includes, in various degrees of edibility, Il Siciliano, Bocca di Lupo, Forty Dean Street and Little Italy – not to mention one of London’s finest coffee houses in Bar Italia.

Now it can add Fornata to its ranks. It’s a far call from the intimate, lived-in Italian restaurants that, in my mind at least, Casanova chewed over his latest conquests in. The Kingly Street restaurant is a pleasant, wide-open, neutrally coloured space, accented by impressive hanging lights and cherry-red seats. Downstairs is an open kitchen with a relaxed, wine-bar atmosphere. It feels a little out-of-the-box, but at just four weeks old you can forgive it.

The menu dips, seemingly at random, in and out of Italian, making you appreciate the staff, who almost all hail from Italy and are on hand to translate.

In restaurants where sharing is encouraged, I’ve come to expect a repetition of the same dozen or so dishes, cooked in a tediously similar way. Fornata avoids this pit-fall: while it’s hardly experimental cuisine, there is enough variety to keep you looking at the menu for more than a couple of minutes.

The food oscillates between perfectly reasonable and rather disappointing – never quite hitting the peaks of delicious nor plumbing the depths of inedible. The aubergine with melted campania cheese – every bit as unhealthy as it sounds – was a winner. The ribs alla braccia with spicy sauce, though, failed on several levels, the first being the pluralisation. One rib, even a decently sized one, is not ideal sharing food. In the event, my guest and I were both happy to pass it over, covered, as it was, in a viscous ketchupy sauce.

The baked salmon in crosta with creamed spinach – the waitress’ recommendation – cooked in the restaurant's giant clay oven, was a something of a curate’s egg. The bread was delicious – both doughy and crispy – but the filling was painfully bland. The sausage bruscetta was forgettable but we made short work of the tiramisu cheese cake. Don’t get me started on the berries coppa (how can a dessert with fresh raspberries in it be too dry?).

To round it off we raided the fully stocked cocktail menu – the espresso martini comes very highly recommended.

By the time the plates were cleared, we were sated if not blown away. The bill, though, was a pleasant surprise – just £42 for two people (excluding alcohol and service). For prices like those, I can – and frequently do – forgive a lot.

Fornata is the epitome of no-nonsense Italian dining; tasty, hearty and reassuringly inexpensive. Expect no great excitement and no nasty surprises. Casanova would be wholeheartedly disappointed.