If Britain is on the brink of ruin, then Saturday-night Brighton hasn’t yet got the memo. The queues at Wagamama and Bill’s snake out of their doors, and there are revellers everywhere, revelling. There is not a seat to be had at the mid-price, group-friendly likes of Côte, Browns and Ask. No, these restaurants don’t have the cool factor that small independents do, but there’s a sense that these big beasts will weather the winter freeze to come. Cool, on the other hand, is a fickle and expensive thing to pull off – one of the coolest restaurants I know just put a small plate of jerusalem artichokes up to £19.50, which feels like a lot.
Increasingly, when booking a table for a group, the focus is firmly on the cheap and cheerful; somewhere with large tables, tolerable house white and food that fills you up. Into this testy landscape comes Tutto, a capacious, partially art-deco Euro-brasserie serving a menu they describe as “Italian food memories – ours and yours”. More accurately, they serve small portions of pappardelle at £14 a bowl or a chunk of sea bass on some sloppy shallots for £22, while a side of roast new potatoes comes in at a fiver. They don’t make pizzas, but they will do you a salumi board featuring finocchiona, coppa, speck and pickled fennel for £12. If this all feels a tad expensive, well, alas, such is the lie of the land these days: that very cool jerusalem artichoke place I mentioned earlier charges 23 smackers for its potato ravioli. Things are wild out there.
Meanwhile, at the slightly more pocket-friendly Tutto, the lasagne “crocchetta” – two large lumps of breaded, deep-fried lasagne – cost a doable £7. But here’s the thing: somewhere in the hasty mass-frying of this lasagne, all the joy of oozing cheese or soothing bechamel or rich beef is lost, leaving you with sturdy slabs of breaded pasta sheets. They’ll line your stomach, but little else.
Tutto is terribly lit, too; it is neither romantically twinkly nor usefully bright. They’ve spent a lot on art and the right paint, but the lighting makes it – and, by default, you – drab. Still, the staff are bright and friendly, and the bar can pull off a cold, well-balanced boulevardier, which you certainly won’t get at Pizza Express. The acoustics in the back room are also awful: when a table of 10 sat down next to us, the noise was so bad, I started having to communicate with Charles via WhatsApp.
Tutto’s biggest problem by far, however, is its food – or, rather, the discrepancy between the dream of its food as presented on the menu, suggesting sublime produce and balmy feasts, and the crushing reality that there are chefs here who can’t cook pasta. Both the pappardelle and the tagliatelle were woefully undercooked in places. Tagliatelle cacio e pepe with black truffle should be a bombardment of richly sauced ecstasy; it turned up almost undressed, with a thin, lightly peppered sauce at the bottom of the bowl. The server delivered a salt grinder, so I gave it a few scooches. Now I had the very same pasta with lumps of rock salt in it. Slow-braised beef shin pappardelle was slightly better, but it was a million miles from the painstaking versions made at Trullo or Bancone.
A small burrata arrived with what was promised as black fig and autumnal caponata, but what came was a very vinegary, brown aubergine stew topped with a few untoasted pine nuts and two slices of damp, unlovable fig. My guess is this is a menu written by someone who genuinely loves Italian food and wants to offer osso buco with gremolata to hungry crowds, but the raw materials just aren’t of a good enough quality. It would take Angela Hartnett doing overtime to make that fig even vaguely edible, and I believe she’s already quite busy. The sea bass, meanwhile, which was cooked through but unseasoned and weirdly wet, was served on top of a pale mush of shallot, wild mushrooms and confit garlic. This dinner will not be waxed lyrically about on my deathbed.
We ordered the chocolate torte for pudding, expecting nothing, only for it to be one of the best desserts I’ve had in ages. I’d envisaged a slice of drab tart, but what appeared resembled a souped-up Feast chocolate ice lolly laid on its side and encrusted with hazelnuts. It was truly excellent: a firm, delicious shell filled with very good, rich, sticky ganache and a big scoop of fior di latte ice-cream on a bed of yet more hazelnuts.
In fact, whoever came up with that pudding should be put in charge of the whole menu. Tutto will feel strange to passing Italians – a reimagining of their homeland that won’t make them homesick one little bit.
Tutto 20-22 Marlborough Place, Brighton, East Sussex, 01273 031595. Open lunch Thurs-Sun, noon-3.30pm (7pm Sun), dinner Mon-Sat, 5-10pm. From about £50 a head plus drinks and service
The next episode in the fourth series of Grace’s Comfort Eating podcast is released on Tuesday 15 November. Listen to it here.