In the 1970s, when the world was just as evil and scuzzy as it is today but my gastrointestinal tract had a certain innocence – and even freshness – there was a pizza joint in Hampstead with the predictable name (at least to the ears of our current era) of Pizzaland. I remember nothing much about Pizzaland’s food but the decor has lodged in my memory – “lodge” being wholly apposite, because it consisted of banquettes topped off with little pitched roofs like lychgates, a lot of wooden fretwork, and a series of murals depicting skiing scenes that looked as if they’d been painted using an Old English sheepdog dipped in Artex.
Why it was that this Neapolitan foodstuff had come to be associated with the Tyrol is beyond me. I thought no more about Pizzaland from that day until this; there was no need, as in the intervening years more and more pizza joints have come slaloming into my consciousness. Then, casting around for another chain restaurant to add to the mighty skein of Real Meals, I alighted on Bella Italia. Bella Italia has only 80 outlets – which makes it a mere charm bracelet when dangled beside the mighty hawsers of Domino’s and Pizza Express et al – but these are spread throughout Britain, a legacy of the fact that in the 1990s it was a much greater thing: an amalgamation of Pizza Piazza, Prima Pasta, Bella Pasta and – yes, you guessed it – Pizzaland that boasted 200 restaurants countrywide.
Now, only the rebranded Bella Italias remain, a mere rump of the former imperium. Yet these Bella Italias have – dare I mix my coinages? – a certain je ne sais quoi. They are, to put it bluntly, such incredible fucking clichés, what with ristorante plastered across their façades and their sepia-scumbled interiors cluttered up with more pseudo-Italianate cod-rustic gubbins than you can shake a breadstick at. The branch we ate in boasted a framed poster for La Dolce Vita, wallmounted spice racks and jars, pot plants and raffia baskets and a trompe l’oeil map of the bootylicious peninsula that compressed so many layers of illusion into a single surface that it made my poor old head spin.
To elaborate: the “map” was painted to resemble a parchment hung on the wall but the wall was further embellished with the effect of plaster having fallen away to expose brickwork, which was itself painted. And rather than being in some Tuscan hilltop town, the whole assemblage was in the middle of an English city. Still, the extent to which this can be called fakery is debatable; indeed, sitting quite happily in Bella Italia (in brutta Bretagna), two things occurred to me: first, that while the country may appear to be chockfull with a Babel of polyglot eateries, there remains this historic stratum of trattorias; and second, that just as the Tudorbethan style of English suburbia was so ubiquitous that it deserves to be viewed as an authentic architectural period, so there is nothing remotely inauthentic about the likes of Bella Italia.
Cheered by these insights, we turned our attention to the menu – and then turned it away again, because there was nothing there to hold our attention, just the usual spread of pizza, pasta, fish and meat dishes. As I pondered the drinks list, my eye was caught by the “Appletini”, a cocktail composed of Martini Bianco and apple juice “topped” with lemonade, and I cast my mind back to the darkest and most desperate periods of my own alcoholism, trying to decide whether even then, I would’ve considered putting anything that sounded quite this vile in my hurting mouth.
I ordered a salmon salad, the boy spaghetti and meatballs. Long since having ceased to be a denizen of the mad realm ruled over by King Alcohol, I ordered a sparkling mineral water – yet (and hopefully never) to have become one, the boy called for an Appletini (sans the Martini and apple juice). The food was bearable but the saving grace – as so often in such establishments – was the staff, who were courteous, considerate and responsive to our picky requests (me for no onion or garlic, he for his meatballs not to be “too spicy”). A few years ago, Bella Italia got into trouble for skimming off its waiters’ tips but that unpleasantness is over now. Still, these folk won’t have been on more than minimum wage plus a cut of the overall tip kitty, and despite such slim pickings they maintained their good cheer; either that – or this was just another illusion to add to all the rest, and they were actually nipping out the back every few minutes for a beaker full of the warm south.