ALMOST ten years ago, two pals of ours, Jamie and Ailsa, moved to Tuscany to do up an old farm and earn a living guiding hill walkers and teaching cookery.
Ever since, they have lived happily in the beautiful hills north of the historic walled city of Lucca, a stunning corner of the Italian countryside characterised by densely wooded hills and beautiful views across the Serchio valley.
However, this isn’t the twee wee Chiantishire populated by upper-middle-class Brits, where the whole place is preserved in aspic. Instead, it’s still a semi-industrial enclave of paper mills and small factories, where many of the local lads dream of running away to live in the big city. Strangely, many dream of running away to Scotland.
This much was brought home to me when we first went to stay with Jamie and Ailsa, and visited the nearby town of Barga to buy wine. Living near Largs, a town famous for the Nardinis and in which, even now, names like Dario and Carlo are almost as popular as Jamie or Stuart, I had been forewarned of what to expect. Nevertheless, it still came as something of a surprise to hear so much English being spoken on the streets of Barga by people with broad Glaswegian and Ayrshire accents. Not for nothing is the place known as ‘piccolo Scozia’ (little Scotland).
Exactly why so many locals and visitors spoke with such pronounced Scottish accents became clear when Jamie and Ailsa were visited by an old man who had lived at their farm in his childhood. He told them how their smallholding had supported up to 15 people back then and how, immediately after the Second World War, things got so tough they were forced to exist on chestnuts and barely nutritious shrubs.
We rarely think of people actually starving in Europe, but in the post-war period, and then in the 1960s, many were left to starve or leave – and when the citizens of Barga left, they came to Scotland. Even now it is twinned with six towns, of which four are in Scotland, all on the east coast – Cockenzie, Port Seton, Prestonpans and Longniddry.
Restaurateurs Tony and Giuliana Pierotti were not part of the first wave, but came to Scotland from Barga in 1962, establishing Piccolo Mondo (small world) in Renfrew in 1974 and winning endless awards before they finally sold the restaurant in 1989.
Despite running a succession of small restaurants, including the extremely popular La Fiorentina, they hankered after their lost identity and teamed up with head chef Iain Monaghan to open a second Piccolo Mondo, in Glasgow’s Argyle Street, in 2005.
They have been going like a steam train ever since, as we witnessed recently on a viciously wet Tuesday evening when the whole place was packed to overflowing, with not a spare seat in the house. This is, of course, generally a good thing – nothing reaffirms your judgment quite like the sense that you’re following a crowd who clearly come and eat here regularly.
That said, I was a little underwhelmed when I first clapped eyes on the menu, with the starters looking particularly predictable: it was like going into an Indian restaurant and seeing page after page of biryanis and kormas spread in front of you. Despite it being a fairly long list, there was nothing on there that I liked the look of, so I decided to go off-piste and asked our waiter whether he could bring me a starter portion of gnochetti with pesto.
Part of my reasoning had been to see how the waiter reacted to an unusual request (he never batted an eyelid), but another part of my thought process was that, along with risotto, steak tartare and soufflé, gnocchi is one of those dishes that is a great guide to the competence of the kitchen. And this was a pass with flying colours: not only were the gnochetti perfect, but so was the freshly made and gorgeous pesto, infused with whole pine seeds.
Sara’s boring-sounding potted shrimps turned out to be even more of a revelation. We had both envisaged the sort of traditional cold dish you might get at a Rick Stein restaurant, but this was a million miles from such dull-but-worthy fodder. Instead, she was served a small ramekin of piping hot prawns that had been sautéed in butter with onions, mushrooms, garlic, dry sherry, white pepper and cream, which made for a gloriously layered combination. Piccolo Mondo is known for its fish, and this dish was marked as a house speciality – which was certainly a worthy description for this hugely enjoyable dish.
Indeed, despite being relatively compact, Sara’s starter was so filling she wasn’t able to eat all her main course, veal Milanese, which came served over linguine in a tomato sauce. Though it had none of the wow factor provided by her starter, this breadcrumbed and battered escalope was a competently executed traditional dish that was undeniably solid. My main course of cacciucco, which is a sort of Tuscan bouillabaisse, turned out to be several notches better than solid, with huge chunks of perfectly cooked monkfish fighting for bowl space with calamari, mussels, langoustines and a gloriously intense fish soup. This alone was worth travelling here for.
We rounded off with a tiramisu that tasted as though the chef had forgotten to add the Marsala wine and a voluminous panna cotta with cherries. These were two perfectly acceptable dishes that easily passed muster, but which had promised so much more.
All in all, we were quietly impressed by Piccolo Mondo. The menu may be half the size of War and Peace, it’s not even on the same page as cheap, some of the waiters can effect a slightly irritating and imperious air, and the otherwise comfortable dining area has some dodgy Italian-themed kitsch paintings and squadrons of (fully armed) Venus De Milos cluttering up the place. But there’s a genuine family feel to the place and the food has the capacity to really bowl you over.
In short, by the time we left I had realised why the place is constantly full, and why it may just be time to go back and pay due homage to Barga.
344 Argyle Street, Glasgow (0141-248 2481, www.piccolomondo.co.uk)
Three-course set menu £27.50 Starters £5.50-£12.50 Main courses £15.50-£27.50 Puddings £5 (cheese £7.50)