There are some restaurants in Reading where the front of house staff have that very special knack of making every customer feel like a VIP.
It starts with the greeting – effusive enough to make you feel like they’ve really missed you since your last visit, not too over the top to stop it seeming sincere. They might remember your name, or ask you about that holiday you mentioned last time. You just know that they can talk with authority about every on the menu, where the ingredients are from and, if you’re very lucky, they’ll even remember things you don’t like (coriander, perhaps) and make sure they don’t end up in any of your dishes.
Restaurants like this are the diamonds of the food scene; they make you want to go back again and again because you want to support them. They feel like a family that just happens to cook you excellent food. I can think of three places like this in Reading off the top of my head, and it’s no coincidence that the first ever Edible Reading review is at one of these restaurants.
I wanted to make sure we started with the right place – somewhere that lots of people but not everyone will know (so you can judge my writing and opinion), somewhere that doesn’t shout about its credentials, somewhere that can be overlooked by the mass of visiting shoppers and so tends to be a full of locals. Someone on Twitter said “I’d like a recommendation that makes a change from going to Carluccio’s” and I thought, Oh, you should go to Pepe Sale.
The location’s a bit of a problem. Pepe Sale is in an unassuming part of Reading, tucked behind the distinctly retro (not in a good way) Broad Street Mall, snuggled up next to the grotesquely brutal Hexagon Theatre in a wide pedestrian thoroughfare that the council (also in an adjacent concrete monstrosity) won’t let them put tables out onto. If you didn’t know it was there you’d never happen upon it.
The décor is pretty basic, too: pink and grey granite tables with white china and peach cloth napkins are laid out at every table, most bearing a small potted aspidistra and a square dish waiting to be filled with olive oil. The look’s dated but homely, lots of bright, bold pictures on the wall, hanging plants around the room. But when it comes to restaurants, looks aren’t everything. As Marco, the endlessly charming front of house, told me that evening, Italians are much more interested in the food than the room.
I feel I ought to confess from the outset that Pepe Sale serves one of my favourite dishes in Reading. Their crab ravioli is just dreamy but is only ever listed on their specials blackboard, tucked just behind the bar. I can’t resist it so I ordered it as my main course (they do a smaller starter portion, if you prefer that). The starter was more of a problem: I fancied the aubergine and courgette al forno but thought the béchamel sauce and parmesan might make it a touch too heavy before a creamy pasta dish. I thought the grilled aubergine and courgettes on a bed of leaves would solve that problem, but it felt a touch too light (I am quite greedy. Another confession.)
Fortunately, Marco came to my rescue. I explained my dilemma and he said the kitchen could rustle me up a plate of grilled vegetables but served with goat’s cheese. How could I resist the opportunity to eat off menu? Exactly.
We asked for Marco’s help in choosing wine and again, he came up trumps, suggesting one of the cheapest wines on the menu (no mean feat – apparently the wine list has a total of sixty-six wines, all Italian). It’s a wine I hadn’t heard of – Santesu IGT Isola Dei Nuraghi, a blend of vermentino and nuragus (both varieties of grape are typical for Sardinia, where the team at Pepe Sale hail from). I loved it – a fresh, crisp white, dry but not too dry with hints of honey to make it taste of early summer (which is often all the summer you get, in Reading) At just over fifteen pounds a bottle it was hard to drink just the one, although we did. School night and all that. The wine was impressive, but the recommendation was more impressive still – lovely to see a restaurant that doesn’t automatically suggest their most expensive wine (or when you say “I want to spend around £30” immediately recommend a bottle that is £37. Cheeky).
My off menu starter was fabulous. The vegetables were thin verging on translucent, lightly griddled with a generous helping of garlic and a lovely caramelised taste offset beautifully by the salty disc on top: simple food, done well, no whistles and bells. My companion had mozzarella baked in radicchio with anchovies, black olives and cherry tomatoes. Again, the combination was perfect – sweet tomatoes, chewy mozzarella (the polymer of cheeses) and bitter radicchio leaves. Beautiful to look at, tasty and unpretentious.
My main wasn’t a disappointment, although I never expected it to be. The bowl that came out was just right – not too many ravioli (I don’t like a pasta dish that feels like a challenge), all perfectly cooked, just al dente, with fluffy crab inside, in a creamy tomato sauce. My only criticism is that the ravioli was supposed to be with beetroot but the flavour and colour was just of plain pasta. It still tasted wonderful but it was not quite as I expected. Marco did show me the pale pink, raw ravioli when I asked about the absence of beetroot so it was definitely there, just undetectable. It didn’t change how delicious they were, and if I hadn’t been thinking about writing this I mightn’t even have noticed.
The other main at my table was also on the specials menu – sea bream cooked with white wine, cherry tomatoes, garlic (lots of it which is great if, like me, you’re a fan) and basil. The two fillets of bream were cooked perfectly, with creamy white flesh and crispy skin: just like my starter, simple ingredients treated with respect. The side order of vegetables included potatoes to die for – salty, herby, well worth distracting your companion’s attention to steal, which to my shame is exactly what I did.
Of course, many people would go home after two courses but I knew that, in order to write a full review, I would have to grit my teeth and order dessert. It’s a hard life. So, out of duty, I opted for the basil panna cotta with a balsamic reduction and my companion had the sweet ravioli.
The panna cotta is intriguing. Basil’s not a herb often found in sweet food so it feels brave of them to put it on their menu in what is a traditional restaurant. The basil flavour is very gentle. It’s a light aftertaste which, coupled with the balsamic, almost plays tricks on the tastebuds because of what I expect basil to taste like. It was weird and yet exactly right. It goes really well with the creamy sweet pannacotta and the sweet but vinegary balsamic cuts through the flavour nicely to keep it fresh. Lovely and very witty (if I can say that without sounding too much of an idiot).
Similarly, it was a novelty to have sweet ravioli. It’s fried squares of pasta filled with ricotta and orange zest, drizzled with honey and dusted with icing sugar. The pasta becomes like pastry when fried – crisp and sweet – and the centre is incredibly moreish (I could have eaten his dessert as well as mine, if he’d only let me).
The food is so good that you almost don’t notice just how good the service is. Throughout the meal Marco was topping up our glasses and chatting to us and the other customers in the restaurant, in that way which looks effortless but is probably bloody hard work. Even when we were the last table in the restaurant I didn’t feel like they were in a hurry for me to leave, that family feeling again.
The food and the service are so good that you almost don’t notice what good value it is, either: three courses for two with a bottle of wine and an after dinner liqueur each (Pepe Sale does a range of wonderful Italian digestifs, many of which have the bitter taste of dandelion and burdock with attitude – I love it, though it’s not to everyone’s taste) came to eighty pounds. It’s not cheap – granted, Carluccio’s is a lot cheaper – but it’s worth every penny.
So, that’s the first review here at Edible Reading. If you’ve been, you probably know how good it is already. If you haven’t, you ought to check it out. And if, hypothetically speaking, you had just arrived in Reading and were trying to choose a venue for your first ever meal – as I am, I guess, in a virtual sense – you could do an awful lot worse.
Pepe Sale – 8.3
3 Queens Walk, Reading, RG1 7QF
Telephone: 0118 959 7700