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A line in the 1969 caper film The Italian Job is widely regarded as among the best ever written. Michael Caine plays a gangster masterminding a gold robbery. When one of his co-conspirators does a trial run of an explosive device designed to detach the doors of a security van so the villains can get at the loot, the van erupts in a fireball the size of a small office block and emerges as a smouldering, tyre-less chassis. Caine turns to the explosives whizz and says: "You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off".
I tell this story to use up 100 words or so which I would otherwise have to devote to making rude comments about the restaurant that is named after the film. There is a limit to how much disobliging stuff you say before it starts to corrode your soul.
Our new rating system means I can't assign it one-and-a-half-stars, and it doesn't really deserve the one-star rating of the truly dire, but it is fair to say that a rating of two rather overstates its charms.
The Italian Job has been near the end of the Herne Bay shops for a long time. If I Google the address the only other hit I get is a Telecom list of payphones, one of which is there. (Quite why someone who has the technology to access an online list of payphone locations would need a payphone I don't know, but there is much I don't know).
The interior of the restaurant is enough to drive you into a deep depression before you even sit down. It's not just that it's dark - though it is; the deep-red textured plaster on the walls seems to inhale the light. It's not just the careless use of artwork (posters of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's and Steve McQueen in The Great Escape face some naive still-lifes in a Mexican style, none of which sings of Tuscany or the Veneto). It's not just the dusty plastic grapevines hanging sadly from the ceiling in what was presumably set up as a private dining room at the back. But all these things together lend the place a drab and careworn feel.
The staff, going through the motions, might have just returned from a funeral. One, who I think was the owner, actually managed to deliver a dish to the table without uttering a word. And the food, alas, does nothing to redeem matters.
I decided to overrule the chef and ask him to hold the lettuce promised with the carpaccio of beef. The paper-thin slices of raw meat were satisfactory but the accompanying capers and olive oil were of indifferent quality.
The Professor's pate was served hot - not something I have ever encountered, though later research tells me it is not unknown. It is, however, unlikeable, in my view at least. The delicate flavours of the chicken livers were lost after what I took to be an excessive blast of microwave power, though the Professor seemed happy enough with them. The greens on the side foreshadowed a later horror.
Mains were worse: the bland filling of pumpkin and spinach in the pre-prepared cannelloni was overpowered by a large dollop of sour tomato sauce from some jar or other. My veal with mushrooms answered to that description only in a literal sense: the mushrooms were odious, without any evidence of an attempt at flavouring and the veal thin and grey. It was as close to the classic vitello ai funghi as my tennis game is to Marina Erakovic's. The accompaniments included a spiral ribbon of thickly shaved carrot. I felt like I was in Te Awamutu in 1963.
A side salad seemed like a practical joke, but was seriously intended. It was a small pile of iceberg lettuce, topped with two slices each of cucumber and tomato and some tinder-dry mesclun that was several days old. It was undressed. We didn't eat it, deliberately; they forgot to charge for it, accidentally. So we paid what it was worth. We lacked the nerve for dessert.
This is not the worst meal I've ever eaten, but it is a contender. If you find yourself in Herne Bay and in need of a payphone, head for this address. Then hire the movie (not the 2003 remake), pick up some takeaway lasagne and a nice bottle of chianti and have a good night in.
Verdict: No, grazie.By Peter Calder Email Peter