After the romance à la carte, the prix fixe

Strada is the cool pizza chain: it's the nouveau riche to Pizza Express's liberal bourgeois, the Campari to Domino's Carlsberg and the Fellini to Pizza Hut's Mike Myers. Thoughts of Fellini are never far from my mind when at Strada and they were especially present the other day, when, during an unseasonably hot lunchtime, I ate at a branch that had open windows facing on to an exhausted runnel of a street backed up with traffic. I found it difficult to sit there, contemplating the furled, white napery and the green place mats, without thinking of the opening sequence of his neorealist masterpiece La strada (1954), in which Gelsomina is hustled home from the beach by her sisters and sold to the travelling strongman Zampanò for 10,000 lire - it's bestial, sure, but cheap, too.

My god-daughter Beatrice was speaking, quite reasonably, of her wheat allergy to the waiter, asking if they did gluten-free pasta or pizza bases. At the end of the restaurant, the flames of the pizza oven played merrily on a ceiling-high, transparent wine cooler. All should've been right with the world and it would've been, were it not for this dreadful miasma that I could sense gushing from some internal vent, fogging up my mind.

Clone wars

There are 70-odd Stradas in Britain, with most of them - doh! - in London. The government wishes us to consume our way out of recession but that's not going to happen so long as the majority of a restaurant chain's outlets are bounded by the M25. What's needed is some Duce-style visionary sending pizzerias and burger joints to those latter-day equivalents of Abyssinia: the Midlands and (gulp!) the north. Only when every clone high street has every eatery - Subway biting down on Pret, Pret munching EAT, EAT stuffing itself with McDonald's - will the good times return.

No, the amiable waiter said, they didn't have gluten-free flour and if they did, they wouldn't be able to guarantee that it wasn't contaminated, because, you see, they make their own pasta and pizza dough and flour tends to gust about the kitchen in clouds that are at once insubstantial and grittily tangible - OK, I concede that the last bit was me, but the waiter was turning his inability to provide something into a selling point. Genius.

Beatrice ordered the risotto funghi and I chose the stufato di pesce. We had side salads - rocket and Parmesan, and mixed. With a Coke for me, still water for Bea and 10 per cent service included, the bill came to well under £30. We were ordering from the £6.95 prix fixe lunch menu - but then, isn't that the shape of things to come? Western civilisation is at the prix fixe stage of decline - long gone are à la carte days of yore. Soon enough, we'll be in the past-its-sell-by-date discounted dump bin of history. Bea was sitting on a banquette that had been covered with the kind of greyish, slightly shiny fabric that Communist Party apparatchiks wore during the Brezhnev era - like I say, Strada is cool.

The couple at the next table were Italian. I could tell because he, while looking perfectly tough, was wearing a pink Ralph Lauren shirt and she had white-blonde hair, cut to resemble vinyl. I explained to my god-daughter that funghi tasted lovely, although to my knowledge they had no food value whatsoever, even though the long filaments of their rhizomes can extend through the soil for kilometres, probing for heavy metal contaminants to suck into their fleshy heads. "Wow," she said, "they really are growths, aren't they?" "Oh, yes," I observed. "If they were grouped on the menu with athlete's foot, they'd get far fewer takers."

I see a darkness

I had to eat my hearty fish stew with my napkin tucked into my collar, lest I flick pasta grains and tomato sauce all over my shirt. It's like that nowadays - life has to be approached with new stratagems devised to counter embarrassment, both for me and others.

I called for the bill. I once heard two waitresses discussing the most offensive things patrons can do. One contended that it was hailing them with a finger click; the other that it was scribbling on an imaginary airborne bill. Long ago, I devised my own method, which involves thrusting both my arms in the air at odd angles while adopting a transfixed gurn. When I'd paid, I looked up and Beatrice had gone - either that or the miasma had grown thicker. Strada is the Dante to Pizza Express's Boccaccio and, in my middle years, I have found myself in a dark wood.

Next week: Madness of Crowds