All this garlic has turned us into a vast army of urbanely middle-class undead

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

New Statesman
All the garlic. Photograph: Getty Images

Nick Lezard, whom I met at Prezzo for one of our twice-per-lustrum inter-columnar suppers, told me that prezzo means “price” in Italian. Nick is good at languages but he couldn’t be certain whether this restaurant chain was named after the common nounal form of the word, or the verbal one “priced”, which prezzo can also mean. Does it matter? Surely not, after all it can be safely asserted that once you’ve named so many eateries in such a way you clearly understand the value of nothing.

What Nick didn’t know – but I did, having laboriously scrolled through their listings – was quite how many Prezzos there are in Britain: 188. A scattering of this multitude are located in big city centres but on the whole Prezzos loiter in the smaller towns, the Basingstokes and Nuneatons, where they wait to pounce on unsuspecting punters and feed them trattoria fare – pasta, pizza, scallopini – continuing that strange inversion plague of vampirism, whereby in the past 20 years quantities of garlic have transmogrified the provisional petite-bourgeoisie into a vast army of urbanely middle-class undead.

Blah factor

I had toyed with the idea of reviewing Prezzo and Zizzi (126 outlets) in a single day, on the grounds that they’re both chains that manifest the blah factor in spades; but a wiser organ than my stomach prevailed and I resolved there was only so much dark-wood laminate I could bear to look upon. So much dark-wood laminate and so many artfully arranged wine bottles (in Prezzo these are fanned out in a rack shaped like the arched window on Play School, begging the question: what’s through it today? To which the answer can only be: rehab). Nick – absurd Brief Encounter-inflected anachronism that he is – ordered a glass of Chianti from the black-aproned Euroserf, but she snapped that they only had Shiraz (£5.60 x2, “soft and dry with a good concentration of blackcurrant fruit and spicy overtones”). The Euroserf growled whether I wanted a large or a small mineral water, and when I asked for specificity she testily conceded that “large” was a litre.

A litre! What kind of a weirdo goes into a chain restaurant on a Wednesday evening and drinks enough mineral water to leach the amino acids from his brain? Well, quite a lot of them actually – the joint was packed, and on almost every table there several bottles of the pricey fizz (£3.95). We ordered crab cakes (£5.65 x2), Nick said he would “try” the lasagne (£9.75), and I risked the Pollo Siciliana (£12.50), which was glossed on the menu as “Chargrilled chicken breast, prosciutto ham and plum tomato slices baked with our own blend of cheese”. In the event, both dishes looked like blobs of cheesy gloop – mine had the consistency and warmth of flip-flops left out in English summer sun, Nick’s was cold in the middle. “Has it been microwaved?” I asked him and he grimly replied, “I suspect not even that.”

Did we complain? No – because life’s too short and I operate on my own form of Pascal’s Wager, reasoning that in the unlikely event that at the moment of my death I discover that the deity is a 22-year-old Slovakian girl in a tomatosauce- flecked black apron, I’ll be pleased that I didn’t. Anyway, Nick and I had become too embroiled in a mild contretemps about salad to bother with anything as prosaic as the food. Nick claimed that he only ever ordered salad in France – “a nice frisée with lardons” was the phrase he had the snobbery to use – while when he was in Blighty he preferred to get down with the herbage in the privacy of his own hovel.

Rocket man

I had ordered a rocket and Grana Padano salad (£3.50), on the grounds that I simply wasn’t fulfilling my daily lactose quota, but in the event my Sicilian gloop came with an adequate salad garnish. Nick, while helping himself to forkfuls of my rocket, said he’d once seen a flyon- the-wall documentary in which British sous-chefs sat around with their sweaty feet in boxes of salad. Why he imagines their Gallic counterparts could never be guilty of such bestial behaviour is beyond me – but unlike most of Prezzo’s clientele, Nick fancies himself, despite all appearances to the contrary, as some sort of Proustian character, who turns down the Duchesse de Guermantes’s invitations in order to slum it with his friends.

We finished off with a single espresso each (£1.90 x2), and I paid the bill. Nick offered to divvy up – he even had his wallet out – but I find myself constitutionally incapable of going Dutch with anyone quite as Francophile as him, especially in a chain Italian restaurant run by Englishmen based in Essex.