It was a whirlwind romance but she was swept off her seat. Madeleine West spills on her life-changing Italian fling.
Dean Martin is pumping from the speakers, the inch-thick menu boasts 43 pizzas with a minimum of 12 toppings each, and the "traditionale" dessert selection is really just 23 interesting interpretations of Nutella... The good folk at Urbanspoon must have been on autopilot when they recommended this joint, I think.
Bitter experience has taught me that should a restaurant bear the title "authentic" in its name or menu, it'll be anything but, so make your excuses and leave. Should the counter feature an extended glass cabinet groaning with gateaux that would shame Marie Antoinette's wig, exit immediately. Should you spy the kitchen sending out a pizza bearing pineapple, peri-peri sauce or tandoori anything, run.
All I want is a specials list determined by seasonality, not cheffy showmanship, nonna hand-rolling cannoli in the kitchen, and a grumpy barista muttering "Americano" should I dare order coffee with milk after noon.
Call me picky but, my fellow cuisine crusaders, as you well know, when you have partaken of true Italian, there's no going back. The days of delivery pizza are done.
It happened to me one summer in Venice. Burano to be specific, that gorgeous little isle on Venice's doorstep, famous for lace and its citizens' century-old penchant for using the entire Dulux colour chart when painting their houses. Local legend whispered of a dining institution on Burano, a seafood restaurant beyond compare, that harvested the treasures of the Venetian lagoon and the Adriatic, and organic produce sourced from its neighbouring islands to create the kind of dining experience that makes memories.
I was sceptical. After all, there was spag bol on the room service menu.
A short water-taxi ride and exorbitant fare brought us virtually to the doorstep of Il Gatto Nero, the black cat, which would cross my path, prove my undoing and spoil me for Italian food forever.
My epiphany began with prosecco - what else? - and the breaking of bread, in this case slabs of warm, chewy ciabatta getting cosy with puddles of bitey olive oil. Balsamic is tolerated but why fiddle with perfection? A Soave Superiore Monte Ceriani marches out, trumpeting an invigorating antipasto misti of razor clams, comb shells and scallops pan-tossed in garlic, onion, a glug of Chianti and fresh parsley. Hold the dish to your ear and I swear you'll hear the sirens call, especially when morsels of baked turbot join the fray.
With barely time to draw breath, let alone digest, a Bianco Trebbiano e Cococciola is mobilised by our diligent sommelier, Massimiliano, son of the chef and owner Ruggero Bovo, to best combat the flurry of lovingly made pasta about to arrive. We're helpless to resist.
Bigoli en salsa, a thick spaghetti tossed in sardines and onion, issues the first challenge, followed by the force of risotto Burano, made with local ghiozzi fish, and their famous tagliolini with spider crab and chilli making up the trifecta.
A well-rested Amarone arrives unbidden (didn't see that coming), heralding a deceptively simple seafood grill, difficult to fight, impossible to resist: cuttlefish, sardines, monkfish and scampi, ably backed up with a tangy mixed-leaf salad.
Sorely tested and having fallen at every culinary hurdle, we're threatened with a Tocai and that most clichéd of Italian desserts, tiramisù. I'm not sure whether it was the precise lines of liquor-addled cake fingers, the heady decadence of the mascarpone-rich cream, or the deep end-notes of grated couverture on top, but this particular example of the famous dessert was bellissimo - nay, amore at first sight. Yet its menu description as mere "espresso cake" was so humble, so underrated, such extreme understatement, I'm pretty sure I wept, and no one was choppin' no onions.
Perhaps it was dégustational overload but I suspect it was my old self, who was satisfied by a Hawaiian and a mid-price red, who wouldn't complain even though she knew the last ocean her marinara swam in was the brine in the bottom of a can, who could still sleep at night despite the presence of freeze-dried onions loitering in her pantry since Mr Whippy was the only food truck in town. That old me was slipping beneath the waves off the coast of Venice, defeated by one perfect meal with nary a scrape of Nutella in sight.
+ Actress Madeleine West stars as Danielle McGuire in Nine's new series Fat Tony & Co.