I’m not sure many people know that Papa Gee even exists. I was out this week with a friend who lives just round the corner from it and I casually dropped into conversation that I was due to go to a restaurant in his manor. First he asked if it was the Mod. Then he guessed at Standard Tandoori. When I shook my head again and said no, it wasn’t Casa Roma either he was stumped. “But there isn’t anywhere else round by me.” he said.
Well, there is: there’s Papa Gee, a small Italian place which has somehow been plugging away at the restaurant game for ten years. I used to walk past it on my way back from Kyrenia or Mya Lacarte and think is that even a real restaurant? The lights always seemed to be off, and I’ve never met anybody who’s eaten there. Even my friend, a local, had never heard of it. Surely a restaurant can’t survive for ten years if no one has ever been?
It’s not the loveliest place, and (apologies to my friend if he’s reading this) not in the loveliest part of town. The Caversham Road is a busy street for traffic but it’s far from the footfall of the town centre and only really comes alive during Reading Festival week. Papa Gee has no real view, no garden to speak of and is pretty anonymous-looking. So why am I reviewing it? Well, you can blame Tripadvisor for that: the reviews are very positive, with repeated claims that it serves the best pizza in Reading. Could the pizzeria I’ve been waiting for all this time really be attached to the not hugely appealing Rainbows Lodge Hotel? Probably not, I thought, but I was too curious to stay away (and hopefully by now you’re curious too).
Passing the bigger, more polished places on a Tuesday night made it very clear that not many people eat out in this part of town during the week; Casa Roma and Standard Tandoori both had three of four tables of guests but were far from busy. Papa Gee’s, on the other hand, had people at seven of its dozen or so tables. At the risk of sounding creepy, I did watch most of the diners leave and only one table was occupied by hotel guests. The rest seemed to be locals. A good sign, right? The interior of the restaurant was very basic with small tables laid with cutlery and paper napkins, signs painted on the window and food themed pictures on the wall. It reminded me of something Marco from Pepe Sale said to me once, that Italians are much more interested in the food than the room. Another good sign, I hoped.
The menu at Papa Gee’s is huge, one of the biggest of any restaurant I have reviewed. It’s a bit bonkers, too: if you want to get an idea of it, look on the website. It has a mixture of fonts, some rather eccentric spelling, some comments in inverted commas after some of the dishes (Buonissimo it says about one of them, Simply Delicious is the commentary on another) and a few – very – random photographs dotted through it. Reading through it I couldn’t decide which to do first, frown or sigh. Fortunately, the waitress was superb: I said I couldn’t decide what to order and she asked me “are you in a pizza, pasta or meat mood tonight?” I asked her to recommend one of each and she did so right away – strong opinions, firm preferences, no nonsense. Suddenly my urge to either frown or sigh had vanished.
The first starter, funghi ripieni, however, jumped off the page – a dish so appealing that it kicked off a bout of plea bargaining (you can pick mains first as long as I get the funghi etc.) It was worth the battle: what arrived was a single field mushroom, stuffed (or, rather, topped) with gorgonzola and mozzarella on a bed of rocket, the whole thing drizzled with balsamic glaze. The mushroom had the balance just right – cooked enough to be soft but not watery. The cheeses were also perfectly balanced – creamy but with enough of a salty tang of blue. The balsamic glaze added just a touch of sweetness. This was divine: simple, unfussy and heavenly.
Picking a second starter wasn’t so easy – who wants to be understudy to a dish like that? – but I thought that the prosciutto and mozzarella would be an interesting choice just to see what their basic ingredients were like, even if it hardly tested the kitchen’s skills. This wasn’t quite as successful. In fairness, the headline acts were both good: the ball of mozzarella was cold, fresh, firm and clean-tasting and the ham – two slices – was nicely salty. I didn’t for a second think it had been freshly sliced but it didn’t quite have that chilly plastic-wrapped texture you get in many restaurants. The green and black pitted olives on top were decent if not wildly exciting. The salad, though, really put me off: more undressed frisée (why places dish up bitter leaves with the texture of wire wool I’ll never know). It was also a bit brown round the edges, which was the final nail in the salad coffin for me. I’d rather have had more of the rocket and balsamic than this rather sad pile of space-filler leaves. This was seven pounds fifty and felt – to me at least – like too much margin and not enough fun.
I went to Papa Gee fully intending to have a conventional pizza, but I was undone by the waitress’ recommendation, namely the calzone Napoli. I rarely have a calzone but she made such a good case that I found myself swept along with her enthusiasm. I’m delighted I did, because it was magnificent: a big folded pizza absolutely stuffed with meat and cheese, like the best Breville ever. As with the mushroom starter, this was a dish all about balance. It was filled with ricotta – not usually my favourite cheese, and not one I’d have on its own, but its fluffy mildness made perfect sense with the intense, thin slices of strong, salty salami. It was all bound together with that glorious molten mozzarella and – just to finish things off – the occasional surprise of a hidden basil leaf. (“Gaetano likes to put basil in everything” said the waitress when I mentioned how much I liked it, “He’s trying to convert everyone”). But the topping – or filling in this case – is only half the battle because, to quote the great Meghan Trainor, it’s all about that base. Papa Gee’s truly is splendid: crispy and bubbled at the edges but thin in the middle, with just a little note of sourdough saltiness. I could have eaten it on its own, and I did notice diners at other table rolling up their pizzas, as you should be able to do but so rarely can.
The waitress didn’t recommend my other main course, but the menu did: after the description of scialatiello (fresh, thick spaghetti, king prawns, olives, “cappers” (sic), anchovies, chilli and cherry tomato sauce) it says “Delicious”. This felt to me a bit like when you order food and the waiter tells you that you’ve made a good choice: funny how, even if you eat out a lot, a little of that sort of validation goes a long way. When it arrived I wished that I had ordered the pizza because it looked a little underwhelming but I tucked in nonetheless – in for a penny in for a pound. Reader, I loved it: the spaghetti, thicker than any I’ve ever seen, was nicely al dente and tasted freshly made (to my amateur taste buds, anyway) and the tomatoes were crushed rather than pulped, so it had more texture than your average bowl of pasta. The mixture of flavours in the sauce was fabulous and gave the opportunity for all kinds of combinations. There were only two king prawns but in the sauce there was a respectable amount of smaller prawns and the hit of chilli at the end of each mouthful was enough to give it a bit of bite without ever becoming overwhelming. It’s another great example of how you shouldn’t judge on looks – the pictures on Papa Gee’s website look unspecial, and my photos do too, but good food is not a beauty contest. I’d eat this again in a heartbeat (if I managed to avoid the lure of that pizza base, that is).
The dessert menu is short and sweet (indeed) with five dishes plus ice cream – not gelato, which struck me as a missed opportunity. I picked just one dessert – the baba – a rum soaked sponge, filled with Nutella. This was so much more delicious than I expected, and by this stage I expected it to be pretty good. It was a light vanilla sponge, airy and open a bit like a buttery brioche, soaked in rum that I think had been sweetened, served split down the middle with hot Nutella spread on the insides. On top of this was a squirt of, err, squirty cream, a fan wafer and a preserved cherry. The cream, wafer and cherry were completely pointless – put there by the chef because he wanted to dress the dish, I think. It really didn’t need them (like I said, not a beauty contest) and this was worth eating whatever it looked like: the sponge was rich and boozy and the Nutella filling was effectively a choc and nut sauce. Simply gorgeous. My dining companion didn’t fancy a dessert so had an Amaro (one of those Italian digestifs that tastes simultaneously medicinal and faintly dangerous) and raved about that instead.
There’s not much to say about the wine list – it’s small but perfectly formed, with only one wine over twenty pounds (and that’s a barolo, so fair enough). We picked a nero d’avola which wasn’t half bad: nicely juicy, full bodied and very affordable at eighteen pounds. Service was very relaxed, with the one waitress happy to recommend food and chat. She was casually dressed – I’m in two minds about whether that bothered me, I feel like it shouldn’t but on some level it did – but she knew the menu inside out and showed genuine interest and concern to make sure we were enjoying everything. The total bill, for two and a half courses each with a bottle of wine and a liqueur, was sixty pounds. Yes. Sixty quid. Both mains were cooked fresh to order, and each one cost less than a tenner.
I think Papa Gee is a real find. It’s a gem of a restaurant: unpretentious and unfussy, serving really good food, friendly and relaxed and an absolute steal. Why don’t more people know about it? Or is it that people do know about it and they’re determined to make sure the secret doesn’t get out? Not sure. Either way, I’m already planning my return visit – no, I’m not telling you when, don’t be daft – so I can try more of those pizzas with that amazing base (I’m particularly drawn to the “Nonna Amalia” with Neapolitan pork sausage and wild broccoli tips). Yes, the location isn’t brilliant but that’s what taxis were invented for – and besides, there’s always the prospect of a post-dinner snifter in the Mod or the Greyfriar. So is it the pizza place I was dreaming of? You know what, I think it might be.
Papa Gee – 7.8
138 Caversham Road, RG1 8AY