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 – the 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. Italian restaurants 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 in which, in my mind’s eye, Casanova chewed over his latest conquests. The Kingly Street restaurant is a pleasant, wide-open, neutrally coloured space, accented by hanging lights and cherry-red seats. Downstairs is an open kitchen with a relaxed, wine-bar vibe.
The menu dips, seemingly at random, in and out of Italian, making you appreciate the staff, who almost all hail from Italy and can translate for you.
The food oscillates between perfectly reasonable and disappointing, never quite hitting the peaks of delicious nor plumbing the depths of inedible. The aubergine with melted campania cheese 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, cooked in the restaurant’s giant clay oven, was a something of a curate’s egg. The bread was delicious – doughy and crispy – but the fish itself was offensively 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 (I’m still not sure how can a dessert with fresh raspberries in it can be too dry).
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 forgive a lot.
Fornata is the epitome of no-nonsense Italian dining; tasty, hearty and inexpensive. Expect no great excitement and no nasty surprises. Casanova would be wholeheartedly disappointed.
First published in City A.M.