Little-known fact of the week: Shakespeare was a fan of chain restaurants. Shut up, he was. You want proof? OK, here it is: ‘Your diet should be in all places alike’ – Timon of Athens, Act III, scene VI. The notoriously uniformity-obsessed KFC, if it wanted to inject a bit of culture into its corporate image, could have that spelled out in chicken bones and framed above the CEO’s desk.
We can tentatively surmise then, that the Italophile Bard of Avon would be delighted to find that four hundred years after his death, upmarket Italian chain Carluccio’s has bagged itself one of the choicest locations his old stamping ground has to offer – near to the river and right across the road from the RSC. On a sunny summer lunchtime I’m surprised to get a table quite easily. I’d expected a scrum.
Despite the relative sparsity of lunchtime punters, service still seems a bit harassed. Drinks and starters arrive fairly promptly, but with mains taking an age, I have plenty of time to contemplate my surroundings and wonder how long things take when it gets really busy. In terms of décor, this place ticks all the modernist boxes: big windows, terrace dining and an attractive Italian deli area to create a folksy focal point (and a chance to take your Italian experience back home).
For my starter, I choose the zuppa di funghi, described as ‘a porcini broth with mushrooms, served with fresh focaccia bread’. First impressions are iffy: a bowl of thin-ish grey liquid, insipid and under-seasoned, with bits of chopped parsley lulling around on top. It contains a hidden surprise though: trawling around the murky depths with my spoon, I find a bed of chopped mushrooms and…boiled potatoes. Er…mushrooms and potatoes? Is that a thing?
Feeling the need to check I haven’t imagined it, I poke around in the hope of pulling out another chunk of spud- and sure enough, here it comes. Mushroom and potato soup then. It doesn’t work at all. The slipperiness of the mushrooms against the flouriness of the potato – with no luxurious third-party sauce act as buffer – is unpleasant, weird and definitely not recommended.
Not quite all is lost however; peeping shyly out from round the soup-bowl is the focaccia – which turns out to be the real star of the show. Light, moist and bright yellow from what must be a huge slug of olive oil, this is down-home, uncomplicated delight. I could have eaten a whole platter of it.
The vegetarian main is ‘home made ravioli – delicate pasta parcels filled with spinach and ricotta and served simply with sage and butter’. It’s a pale and minimalist dish, each individual raviolo like two palms pressed together in prayer – and containing almost as little between them. Don’t get me wrong – the pasta is good and perfectly cooked, but the filling is too inconsequential to act as foil. An echo-ingly faint whisper of nutmeg gives but the briefest, most nebulous intimation of the divine. The butter – continuing this week’s theme – is watery and the single sage leaf, a gesture only.
If Shakespeare had been a twenty-first century marketing man instead of a sixteenth/seventeenth century playwright, he might have argued that it’s not diet but standards that ‘should be in all places alike’. Because that’s the point of chains, isn’t it? A standard that’s reliably knowable whichever branch you walk into. The fact that this can only be achieved by reproducing a menu that’s reliably knowable (i.e. the same) in every branch is perhaps less widely acknowledged.
Carluccio’s does seem a little coy about this. Its website doesn’t show a unified menu for all its ninety-six branches. If you want to find out what’s on offer at any given outlet, you have to perform an individual search. But when I sampled about twenty lunchtime menus, they were identical. Familiarity might seem like a safe option, but only if people like what they’re getting. The risk is that having found out about it, what they actually know is they don’t want it a second time. With respect to Carluccio’s, that’s where I’m at now.
Carluccio’s, 13 Waterside, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Cv37 6BA. Lunch Set Menu, £10.99