As a supercar-obsessed teenager, I subscribed for a few years in the late 1980s to CAR Magazine. My favourite section, moreso even than the road-tests of said gloriously vulgar vehicles - Ferrari F40 vs. Porsche 959, anyone? - was the buyers' guide, 'The Good, The Bad & The Ugly'. As well as listing the essential specs of every make and model of new car, it gave succinct summaries of reasons for and against buying them which were often exceptionally caustic and extremely funny.
Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in their assessment of the Polish-built FSO 125P, a vehicle for which the writers exhibited particular disdain. As if the specs didn't speak for themselves - top speed 93mph, 0-60 in 14.4 seconds - Car brilliantly summarised it thus: 'For: Quad headlamps. Against: Everything aft.' There was one, fairly inconsequential positive thing to say about this turkey of a motor, but nothing else, at all. And the reason I take you on this automotive trip down memory lane is because that's exactly how I'd sum up Fornata.
To start with the one 'For' for Fornata - a casual all-day Italian on Kingly Street from the owners of Mayfair's swishy Babbo - it looked pretty from the outside, with its nicely designed frontage and bright yellow awning. The dining room appeared welcoming too, with a smart bar and big red banquettes. It's just a shame that everything went downhill the second we stepped through the door.
We - Anders, our old school friend Nina and I - had booked a table for three, so were understandably a little taken aback when the greeter rather brusquely said, "Oh - there's three of you" before going off, inexplicably, to fetch a manager. Said manager then took us downstairs - away from the nice, atmospheric room where there were plenty of tables available - to the oppressively brightly-lit basement. We were shown to a low-ceilinged alcove which Anders and I, both over six feet tall, had to contort ourselves into. It was uncomfortable, but at least provided some respite from the interrogation-chamber lighting.
Fornata's 'concept' - that dreaded word - isn't at all clear from the menu unless you speak Italian, as Anders fortunately can, and if staff don't think it necessary to explain it, as they clearly didn't. The menu is split into two columns, 'Dalla Nostra Cucina' ('From Our Kitchen') and 'Dalla Nostra Forno' ('From Our Oven') which are sub-divided into 'Per Stuzzicare' ('For Snacking') and 'Per Mangiare' ('For Eating' - although surely everything is on a menu?). Prices starting as low as £1.60 and only peaking at £9.80 give away that this is yet another take on 'Italian tapas', but the attempt to present the menu in an original way results only in annoying, almost wilful opacity.
I could have overlooked such pernickety gripes about welcome, decor and menu writing - which matter to me but may not be of the least importance to anyone else - had the food been fantastic, but it wasn't. Rosemary and olive oil schiacciatina and sausage bruschettine with Italian chilli peppers used the same dry, chewy mini pizza base, the latter perked up slightly by the salt and spice of the toppings. A crab piadina with mascarpone and ricotta was better if rather heavy on the cheese, but woefully over-priced for its size at £9.25.
Bland caserecce pasta with creamy mushroom and chive sauce and pollo all diavola - spicy chicken - could have come from a student cookbook. Polpettine and burrata in Pugliese bread (if at this point you're thinking "Blimey, didn't they order a lot of bread-based stuff?" you'd be right, but the menu really doesn't offer a lot of dishes that don't have some sort of carb-heavy component) was OK but it felt a waste to cook burrata; oozingly creamy raw, when baked it just becomes chewy and nondescript. Only grilled lamb chops in a delicate mint marinade stood out as being better-than-mediocre.
Of eight desserts on the menu, only three were available - a good number of dishes from the rest of the menu were also 'off' - so as there were three of us we ordered the lot. Tiramisu cheesecake was perfectly pleasant - if it was dalla loro cucina then I commend them - but lemon crostata pie was downright unpleasant, the base rubbery, the filling bitterly synthetic. Berries coppa - a glass of very thick sweetened double cream with some berries at the bottom - divided us; Anders couldn't stomach it, Nina and I rather liked it, but to be honest by this point I was desperate to like something.
Service was Mutt and Jeff, veering from informal and friendly to monosyllabically surly, and nothing about the overall experience could make me recommend Fornata. Although the bill wasn't too terrible, at about £35 each including two bottles of wine and 12.5% service, for the same money or less we could have had a vastly superior meal at, say, Polpetto. Fortunately when you've known the friends you're with for well over twenty years, such wash-outs can be laughed off, but I was still embarrassed on London's behalf that having returned only recently from ten years living in Bermuda this was Nina's first experience of our otherwise brilliant restaurant scene.
The FSO 125 was an authorised reproduction of a better car using inferior components at a much lower cost. Fornata feels like the restaurant equivalent - a cheap and shoddy pastiche of other, superior models. In socialist Poland, the only choice was no choice; the same cannot be said of London today. There are vastly better restaurants than Fornata not only in Soho but even on the same street. A huge improvement is needed if, like the 125, it is not to end up on the scrapheap.
Fornata, 15 Kingly Street, London W1B 5PS Tel: 020 8181 8887 http://www.fornata.com