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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 23rd February 2007

Carluccio's


In a few months time, I'll be in the unenviable position of having three children under four. Not surprisingly, my wife expects me to pick up the slack at the weekends and, as a consequence, I now spend every Sunday hunting for somewhere to have brunch that is (a) reasonably priced, (b) kiddie-friendly and (c) easy on the palate. It isn't easy. The River Café, for instance, satisfies the last two requirements, but falls down on the first, whereas the local branch of Giraffe satisfies the first two, but falls down on the last.

You can imagine how curious I was, therefore, on discovering that Carluccio's had opened a branch in Chiswick. Admittedly, I don't actually live in Chiswick, but given how slim the pickings are in Shepherd's Bush I often find myself loading up the people carrier on a Sunday morning and setting off for W6. For a few dreamy hours I can make-believe that I'm an investment banker--or, indeed, a restaurateur. When Carluccio's went public two years ago, Antonio Carluccio, the famous Italian chef who started the chain in 1999 and has just been awarded an OBE, reportedly pocketed £10 million.

From a location point of view, the Chiswick branch of Carluccio's isn't ideal. As a rule of thumb, the value of real estate in the area is dictated by how close it is to Turnham Green Terrace and how far it is from the A4--and Carluccio's is marginally closer to the latter. Indeed, it's situated opposite the Barley Mow which, according to the local constabulary, is one of the few "problem pubs" in the area. Still, compared to Shepherd's Bush, even the unfashionable end of Chiswick High Road is an oasis of peace and tranquillity.

Carluccio's prides itself on welcoming children and in order to test this I borrowed an additional two from a neighbour. The sight of a beleaguered dad trying to corral an over-excited five-year-old and a mischievous three-year-old, while simultaneously juggling two toddlers, would be enough to strike fear into the hearts of most restaurant managers, but the maitre 'd of Carluccio's took it in her stride. (Not surprising, given that the place seemed to be crawling with dads and their children--in some cases literally.) Within a couple of minutes she had us all seated at a long table and had supplied each of the children with a box of crayons and a sheet of paper. The fact that my one-year-old mistook this for a plate of hors d'oeuvres certainly wasn't her fault.

Antonia Carlucci claims to have single-handedly introduced the British to focaccio when he introduced it at the now-defunct Neal Street Restaurant so I began by ordering a plate of "savoury bread" to keep the children happy. Very good it was, too, even if I was charged £2.95 for something that a lot of restaurants provide for free.

While the kids devoured the focaccio, I tucked into a large mixed antipasto for two, which was a bit of a mixed bag. The oven roasted tomatoes and the marinated peppers were both excellent, but the roast ham rather let the side down, having curled and hardened at the edges. My main course of Milanese di pollo was more successful, being crispy and fresh--and the kids seemed delighted with their bowls of spaghetti and tomato sauce. Even better, from their point of view, were the tubs of Carluccio's own-brand chocolate "gelati", which successfully distracted them while I polished off some bitter chocolate mouse. The coffee, needless to say, was excellent.

Carluccio's is one of the most successful upmarket chain restaurants in the country, with an annual turnover of £45.8 million--and it's not hard to see why. The cuisine in the Chiswick branch may not have been out of the top drawer, but it's above average for such a kiddie-friendly restaurant and the cost worked out at about £10 a head. I'm not sure I'll return every Sunday, but I'll certainly be back very soon.

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