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Diverso: Modern Italian haute cuisine

I've often peered into Diverso when strolling down through Piccadilly but haven't quite had the courage to cross the threshold. Perhaps the smoked glass plate window reinforces the sense of exclusivity, isolation even, or maybe the very location (nearly opposite the Ritz) signals the probability of a heavy assault on the wallet. A more careful look at the menu outside should have dispelled some of these doubts. Of course it ain't cheap, but who wants a cheap Trat bang in the middle of Piccadilly?

So when a friend suggested we should have lunch there I was glad of the chance to see what Diverso is really like. The first impression as you enter is that of an al fresco space. It's a bit like one of those Florentine town houses, all rather austere and impregnable viewed from the outside, but once within the courtyard, you enter an oasis of calm and refreshment after the hurly-burly of the city. Well almost, as our entrance happened to coincide with a spectacular cadence of high Cs from Signor Pavarotti, disappointingly not in person on this occasion.

Immediately on being shown to our table some olive paté, slivers of fresh Parmesan and fresh, light bread appeared, which could be said tp justify the two pound cover charge. With a glass each of crisp white house wine quickly dispensed, we were happy enough to start perusing the Menu, which is the same for lunch as for dinner. Then Ferdinando, the manager, suggested that perhaps we would like a surprise starter? What a good idea, this means cutting down the choosing time, which is useful at lunchtime for those not entirely at their leisure. What soon arrived was simply breathtaking: some scallops wrapped in Italian bacon - a collision of vivid flavours - and a pancake filled with a crabmeat stuffing. The casing had been perfectly gathered together just like a medieval money bag, tied at the top with a green lace fashioned from a sliver of leek. All the dishes are served in huge brilliantly coloured ceramic bowls of varying hues - I just love that sort of thing!

I noticed about six fish dishes on the a la carte menu, and there were three special dishes of the day, of which two were also fish. I had a duo of pasta - spaghetti with a lobster sauce and tagliatelle with porcini. I rarely have pasta as a main course, for much as I like it, I find that a large main portion, however good, can get a little tedious - same texture, flavour and colour. At Diverso, they positively encourage you to mix pastas to provide contrast and diversity, so I could have had a trio of pastas. There was plenty of lobster in the spaghetti which was exceptionally tasty and the change of colour and texture provided by the funghi gave the whole thing even more of a lift.

My friend had a simply stunning looking Mediterranean mixed grill with huge langoustines, king prawns, chargilled Dover sole and more scallops which all came in a really delicious sauce and needed every inch of yet another large decorative ceramic bowl. Next time I go, perhaps in the evening, I think I'll try one of their meat dishes. I particularly liked the sound of an Angus entrecote of beef with mostarda e lampone - preserved raspberries with mustard - or there is calves liver with smoked ham and avocado, or even breast of duck with raspberries and honey.

The desserts at Diverso are first rate examples of the traditional range of Italian puddings - Amaretti ice and biscuits, Tiramisu, and home made sorbetti, for instance. We shared some ripe and juicy sliced mango with mango ice which was creamier than a sorbet but lighter than an ice cream. They have a particularly good range of digestives; I tried a wonderfully smokey and rich Grappa made from Merlot. The service is very professional, lightened with typical Italian charm and friendliness. Diverso is a very pleasant, smart but somehow easy going place where there is an obvious delight and pride in good cooking and presentation.

The cost of your meal

Starters: mostly Stg 7.50 - 8.50, zuppe from Stg 4.50; pasta dishes Stg 8.00 - 12.00; main dishes Stg 8.90 - 21.50 but mostly between 12.00 and 14.00. Puddings are all Stg 4.00. Cover charge Stg 2.00. The average price of a three course meal with half a bottle of wine is about Stg 40.00.

Diverso, 85 Piccadilly W1. Tel: 020 7491 2222. Open Monday - Saturday Midday to 3.00pm and 6.45pm to 11.30pm. Sunday 6.30 - 11pm.


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