For many years now, a group of friends and I have been summering in a large converted farmhouse on a lake in Umbria.
When I talk about that at dinner parties and local parent evenings, a lot of people say “Cumbria?! I thought that was in Wales!” which is a doubly stupid comment as obviously I don’t mean Cumbria and obviously Cumbria is in the North West of England, not Wales.
It’s a joke that’s begun to wear me down, and it’s part of the reason I no longer attend dinner parties unless I’ve checked with the host beforehand that everyone is on at least nodding terms with Italian geography. What I’m trying to get across here is that I’ve spent a lot of time in Italy (so much, in fact, that the French ambassador to the UK has begun sending me bottles of Champagne in the post in an attempt to woo me across the border. That’s a joke, by the way. We’re only distantly acquainted and I’m sure he’s not the type of man to solicit bribery.)
As such I’m a tough nut to crack when it comes to Italian dining. And Vivo cracked me. I was sold from the moment I saw the stretching canteen-style service; sold by the olive-skinned, doe-eyed waiter; sold by the rugged Tuscan walls and vast marble tables; sold by the charming owner, Ben, who looked like a taller Ryan Reynolds. The food was served generously and unpretentiously: we had about six different salads, which were all probably terribly healthy but perfectly nice, followed by a punchy, winey lasagna and a silken chicken Milanese. I’m sure you couldn’t ask for more if you found yourself in Umbria itself.
Now, I spend a lot of time in restaurant bathrooms. Not just because I find it useful to give myself mid-date pep talks in the mirror (“for god sake man get it together, you’ve not said a word to the poor girl for forty minutes!”) but also because I think they say a lot about a restaurant. The bistros I usually visit in Umbria don’t have very good toilets. They have holes in the floor. They don’t have locks. They have Italian phone numbers scrawled on the walls that when you try and ring them, charge you a lot of money and make your parents put special restrictions on your phone contract and your mother embarrass you in front of family friends at Sunday lunch. These toilets don’t say nice things. They say “Go home you idiot, and take your linen shirts and short haired dog with you.” Vivo’s bathrooms, however, with their austere black stone cladding and softly subdued lighting, say something entirely different: “My friend, you look wonderful. Me and some girls are having a party on a rooftop somewhere. There’s lots of Aperol and a four piece band and Marco’s mother has asked you to make a speech. We’re even thinking about going to hang out by the pool afterwards, and Alessandro has promised not to push you in.” That last bit, to me, is particularly comforting: I often wear felt hats and cow-hide boots, items that would be irreparably damaged by contact with chlorinated water.
Vivo Islington review by Joe Bullmore