Colosseo, Victoria, London
Colosseo – 1/5
Why the dearth of decent restaurants around here? Something about this area seems to scare off chefs quicker than a salmonella outbreak. Strange, for such a healthy spot of central London real estate, with businesses, well-heeled locals and things to do galore.
In the failing light, R and I have been wandering these streets for what seem like hours, looking for somewhere to eat. The same wretched chain has infected every pub we pass. Inside them, in catering trays, concrete pie crusts cover the residues of brown sauce and black meat, desiccated by heatlamps. Finally, a Pizza Express hoves into view. Well, you could do worse. Oh, hang on.
Next door is a friendly-looking neighbourhood Italian, with pizzas for eight or nine quid, veal escalopes or salmon with red pesto at £13.00 and, goodness me, can that be fillet steak for only £15.55? Surely, a gem like this deserves to thrive. It must be tough, up against the adjacent franchise. Let’s give the little guy a shot.
Five tables are full – or twenty-five are empty. It’s the day after the bank holiday, we reassure ourselves. Bound to be quiet. Perky staff, supervised by a brisk, whippet-thin manager, are unsurprisingly pleased to see us. Iceless, lemonless tap water arrives, house red (£11.95) is just about drinkable, and a shared starter seems like a good idea even if we will have to eat it with paper napkins. Disconcertingly soon after we order it, the waitress puts down the promising-sounding baked scamorza – smoked cheese – with courgettes in garlic, mint and chilli.
Under a brown crust, a clump of synthetic cheese sits damply on the plate, like a half-submerged, forgotten tennis ball in winter. Its insides are a cold mass of chewy rubber. Scattered round it are haphazard chunks of green-brown courgette, cooked days ago, left in the fridge and now microwaved, mushier than soaked tissue paper. In the dim recesses of the imagination, there’s something tasty in this idea: hot, melting grilled cheese, fresh courgettes quickly sautéed, a light and spicy dressing. But this is a truly repugnant plate of food, suitable for convicted traitors or Girls Aloud fans. The garlic, mint and chilli? Not a whisper.
R and I have obviously made a terrible mistake. Pizzas appear: the ‘Colosseo’ for him, with parma ham, porcini, grana padano and truffle oil. Sounds good, doesn’t it? And indeed this signature dish, named for the restaurant itself, is almost passable, even with its pigskin-coloured, rawish, chewy dough, its bricky slabs of cheese and its ‘porcini’ tinned to irrecognisability. While the strange flecks of meat are (if they say so) ham from Parma, they most certainly are not Parma ham. Where are the strips of porkiness, thin as silk, for which the region is famed? Vincenzo Romano, Colosseo’s ludicrously-styled ‘Executive Chef’, certainly doesn’t know.
The best I can say for my calzone dell’ appia, indeed the best for this meal, is that the ingredients that the menu promised (artichokes and salami, since you ask) are there. A ladle of very old tomato sauce, thin, flavourless and cochineal, has been slopped on the poor thing, which now looks like a bleeding, shaved animal. R and I have walked for a long time, and I’m hungry, so I’ll try and eat some of it. But really, would anyone enjoy this? Lean back in tummy-rubbing satisfaction? Pronounce it so much as edible? Why send it out, then? Pungent capers make an otherwise somnambulant green salad vaguely more interesting, like a swear word on an episode of Countdown. But that’s all. The tastiest thing that Colosseo has to offer is a jarred caper.
From its ghost-town atmosphere, this restaurant is obviously suffering as business peels away into Pizza Express, doubtless taking some joie de vivre with it. Good. Colosseo doesn’t deserve any customers. With only a clutch of people every night, it has the chance to make its food as delicious as possible, producing careful plates of cheap, nourishing nosh. Build up a reputation. Get some regulars. Either it’s stuck in its ways, though, or it’s simply given up. The 10% service charge – rather than the universal 12.5% – is not designed to price things more fairly but because they know that a penny added to the cost of this dross is already an insult. If only we’d gone next door: Colosseo is one colossal failure.
Colosseo, 79 Victoria Street, London SW1
Tel. +44 (0)20 7222 3871
One and a half-course dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £25.