You can, I think, judge the gastronomic worth of a city not only by Michelin stars, but by humbler criteria: how good is the bread, the coffee and the ice cream?
Even in the greatest food-loving cities there are anomalies. Paris, excellent for bread (try Du Pain et des Idées, near the Canal St-Martin, for fabulous baguettes, croissants and pastries), was typically terrible for coffee. Happily, a new breed of establishment is venerating not just the unique ambience of a Parisian café but what’s in the cup. La Caféothèque de Paris, by the river in the 4ème, is one of the best, run by former Guatemalan ambassador Gloria Montenegro and offering a bewildering choice of coffee from around the globe. For ice cream, go to Une Glace à Paris, in the Marais, and order the baba au rhum St James – rum-soaked cake bound up in beech‑smoked vanilla crème glacée.
Then there is Florence, where the espresso is buonissimo and the gelato fantastico, but the bread, traditionally made with neither salt nor oil, has all the character of cardboard (to my mind at least, although a friend who lives in the city told me it’s “like Dante: you get used to it”) and is best employed to make panzanella. Head instead to one of the Pugi chain of bakeries (there is a branch in Piazza San Marco) for freshly baked schiacciata all’olio – a focaccia-like bread with plenty of salt and oil.
Until recently, London scored rather poorly on all three counts; now, though, it’s easier to find fine examples of each, including excellent sourdough bread. There’s St John Bakery, or you might try a loaf of Hackney Wild from the E5 Bakehouse, a rustic, textured blend of white, rye and wholemeal flours.
Coffee has benefited hugely from the Australians and New Zealanders who have set up shop in London: the baristas at Caravan, in Exmouth Market and King’s Cross, make a damn fine cup of coffee – “flat white” a speciality – while the best espresso in London is at Wild Caper, in Brixton Market, where Gianni Frasi’s Veronese coffee is served.
For ice cream, Vico (pictured), the new venture from Bocca di Lupo’s Jacob Kenedy, is the hottest place in town. The huge, handsome “covered piazza” on Cambridge Circus specialises in pizza al taglio (pizza in big slices), polpette (meatballs) and other fried treats, and perfect, inventively flavoured gelati.
It is almost time too for Sicilian blood oranges. The blood-orange granita at Gelupo, Bocca di Lupo’s little sister, is one of the great consolations of a London winter, and I’m certain that Vico’s version will not fall far from the tree.