Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Regional Italian Dining In London: A Networker’s Guide

By Ben Brill

I was never any good at networking. When I started in my first job, I was supposed to do it with these things called ‘regional stakeholders’, but I always seemed to end up spending half of my time at meetings standing on the edge of the regional stakeholders’ conversations, running through my repertoire of nods and smiles and concerned looks like the person who does the sign language on BBC, and the other half of my time hiding in the toilets.

My boss wasn’t very impressed. She came right into the toilets and told me so. I tried to explain that I was painfully shy, and that I wasn’t really sure what a regional stakeholder was, but it didn’t seem to help. She just got angry. I don’t think she knew what a regional stakeholder was, either.

I rang my mum and asked her what I should do. “Are you calling me from the toilet?” she said. I explained to her that my office had high ceilings. “Look, bubbala,” she said, “you’re a sweet boy, just be yourself, and they’re sure to warm to you.” It seemed like good advice, so I went right back to the regional stakeholders, introduced myself, and made a rubbish self-deprecating joke. Nobody laughed. I made my excuses and returned to my cubicle.

These days, networking seems to be much easier. At Refettorio in the City of London, they even give you a glass of Prosecco when you arrive, and introduce you to the other networkers.

“I’m Ben, from Fluid London,” I say, and everyone nods and smiles and looks concerned. I nod and smile and look concerned back. A waiter fills up my glass with some more Prosecco. “Perhaps I’m better at networking than I thought,” I think.

We’re all here for the launch of the beautiful new book, Made in Sicily, by Giorgio Locatelli; he of Locanda Locatelli fame. Giorgio has created a special Sicilian menu using recipes from the book to celebrate, and they’re letting us try it out this evening. Refettorio is the kind of restaurant businessmen go to when they’re having quite important meetings, but the staff are friendly and relaxed, and it feels cosy and autumnal. I’m wearing my good brown cords, so I fit right in.

We sit down, and I decide I’m going to network with the person opposite. I crack a couple of jokes about The Godfather to break the ice, and start telling him how I'm a bit of an expert on Italian regional cuisine. He said he was from Enfield, so he’s probably not seen much of the world, I decide.

“Of course,” I say, feeling expansive, “it’s been really refreshing over the past few years to see so many places doing decent regional cuisine in London.” I tell him he has to try Pane Vino for Sardinian, and 500 in Archway, or Trullo in Highbury for Tuscan, and he nods and looks impressed. I’m about to mention Bocca di Lupo and Polpo in Soho, but I stop myself. I think he’s probably a bit intimidated by my knowledge.

“My name’s Ben, by the way.” I say reaching a hand across the table. “What’s yours?”

“Franco,” he replies.

It turns out Franco’s from Enfield, but his family is from Sicily. He’s probably forgotten more about Italian regional cuisine than I’ve ever pretended to know. I feel a bit of a prat, particularly after the jokes about The Godfather, but he doesn’t seem to mind. He tells me all about Sicilian food, and even invites me round to his for tea, so I can try the real thing. I nearly tell him that I’ve always wanted to go to Enfield, but decide that it’s not the right time to start making rubbish self-deprecating jokes.

The menu looks really good, full of the North African influences and robust flavours Franco says are characteristic of Sicilian food, but although every element of the starter of caponata, octopus salad and fritto misto is cooked beautifully, it doesn’t quite hang together for me. The Messinese swordfish main is bang on the money, though, and even though Franco doesn’t look too impressed with the deconstructed cassata they serve up for dessert (he says it’s not enough like a cake to be a cassata, or not enough like a cassata to be a cake; I forget which), I think it’s absolutely great.

“What’s not to like?” I say. “It’s light, frothy and fun; the perfect way to finish off a thoroughly enjoyable meal.”

Some people start to leave, and as they do, they shake my hand, and say, “It was lovely to meet you and hope to see you again sometime.” I nod and smile and look concerned in farewell. Some of them even hand me business cards.

“This networking lark’s a breeze,” I decide, as I nip to the toilet to freshen up before I leave. As I return, the lady who was sitting to my left asks me whether I enjoyed my meal.

“I’m not much of an expert, but I never turn my nose up at a free dinner,” I reply, with a self-deprecating chuckle. She doesn’t laugh. I make my excuses and return to my cubicle.

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