Café review: The Collective

Some of the most prevalent of Reading’s many cynics are people I like to call the Not Another Brigade. They crop up all the time: Not another burger place, they say. Not another coffee shop. If I had a fiver for every time I’ve heard someone say that, I could open a coffee shop of my own. Shortly after doing so, I’d hear enough not anothers to be able to open another, and another, and another.

Although when it comes to burgers, they might have a point. Aside from Gordon Ramsay’s new outpost where Giraffe used to be, there’s one opening on St Mary’s Butts in the old Pizza Express site, one on the Oxford Road opposite the Broad Street Mall, one more taking up the Sprinkles Gelato building next to Smash N’ Grab, itself another – that word again – burger restaurant. Oh, and Slam Burger on Christchurch Green, which will offer burgers called the Big Slam and – ridiculous name alert – the “Beef Wooper”. There was once a Black Country establishment called Kent’s Tuck Inn Fried Chicken. Slam Burger could learn a lot from them: if you’re going to be shameless, at least be funny with it. 

Coffee shops are a different matter. People have been saying not another coffee shop ever since C.U.P. opened next to Reading Minster, but now C.U.P. has another branch on Blagrave Street and a third, a recent addition, in the Broad Street Mall. We get new coffee places all the time. Compound Coffee is now operating out of the ground floor of the Biscuit Factory, and something called “Artizan” (showing that swapping an S for a Z always makes a brand look classier) has opened in the building once occupied by Nineties throwback Smokin’ Billy’s.

It’s not a story of unchecked growth, though: the year hasn’t been without its closures in caféland. Earlier this year Anonymous Coffee pulled out of the Tasting House, shortly before the Tasting House pulled out of Chain Street. And only a few weeks ago punters heading for Tamp Culture outside the Oracle were surprised to find an empty space where the kiosk used to be. Tamp had upped sticks and left after over seven years trading at that pitch with no farewell: they’ve since put something on their website. Do these closures prove that Reading can’t sustain (not) another café, or is it just the circle of life?

One part of Reading that has traditionally felt poorly served for cafés is Caversham. There was a time when you had Costa and Alto Lounge, and that was pretty much it. Then in 2016 Tipsy Bean opened, serving something you could loosely describe as coffee, and so did Nomad Bakery. And for a while we also had Siblings Home, a little place on the Hemdean Road: I liked it a great deal, but its owners had a haphazard approach to some of the basics, such as being open when you’d expect them to be. Anyway, that flurry of activity didn’t last long – Nomad, Tipsy Bean and Siblings Home have all ceased trading.

But in more recent times, there’s been a new wave of cafés in Caversham trying to challenge the dominance of Costa. So now Geo Café, which is part cafe, part delicatessen slash general store, is where Nomad used to be, but you also have Gardens Of Caversham, a third branch of the Workhouse empire, in the old Lloyds Bank building. At the more traditional end of the spectrum, there’s the superbly named Nathan’s Nibbles. And up past the Griffin you’ll find The Collective, the subject of this week’s review.

It’s a combination of café and “lifestyle store” and it opened last summer, the brainchild of locals Sam Smith and Susie Jackson (although I gather the latter has now left the business). It’s built up a good reputation over the last year, even scoring a mention in cult coffee blog Brian’s Coffee Spot, and yet shamefully I hadn’t visited until recently, when I sat in their courtyard on a warm afternoon and had a coffee. I made a mental note that I should check out the menu, so I returned on a Monday lunchtime to see what the food was like.

The Collective has obvious kerb appeal. It used to be a newsagent, but they’ve done a fantastic job converting it to a double-aspect café and shop with big windows, and the overall effect is far more like something Scandi, or at least European, than any other café in town. There are a couple of tables outside on Church Road, a handful inside, and a courtyard out back which has the majority of the seating. Inside there are a fair few homewares on display, and a counter displays plenty of appetising-looking baked goods. You order at the counter, then take a number to your table.

My table was out in the courtyard, which is truly a gorgeous space. They’ve clearly put a lot of work and thought into it, with a lovely panelled roof letting in plenty of sunlight and keeping out any rain. I can imagine it being an attractive spot when the weather takes a turn for the worse, with plenty of tasteful overhead lighting which will help as the afternoons become gloomy. It felt very polished – I’m so used to cafés that open before they’re quite ready and always look somewhat unfinished, so it made a welcome change to go somewhere so fully realised.

And it was packed – I arrived just before one o’clock and got one of the last free tables. When I did, every table indoors was already taken and there was a decent queue building for the counter. It gave the whole place a companionable bustle, and I enjoyed sitting among the great and the good north of the river, although it did make me feel increasingly guilty about taking up a table all to myself.

The menu sensibly doesn’t try to do too much, with sections for brunch, sandwiches and salads. There’s nothing as pedestrian as a full English, and the brunches are more Granger & Co than Gregg’s. Prices range from six pounds fifty to nine fifty, and there’s a selection of sourdough toasties including a regularly-changing special. Suppliers are name-checked – not enough places do this – so you know that the bread comes from Rise, the bacon from The Caversham Butcher and the eggs from Stokes Farm. I didn’t clock who makes the cakes, so it’s possible that they use a selection of suppliers for those.

I was sorely tempted by the mushrooms, glossy with tamari and tumbled onto toasted sourdough, after seeing them arrive at a neighbouring table, but after mulling it over I opted for the bacon and maple syrup brioche French toast. And a good decision it was too: just look at it. 

Not bad, eh? But it didn’t just look the part – which is crucial, because this is a dish that’s easy to get wrong in many ways. You can over-soak the bread with egg, so that eating it becomes a stodgy chore. Not so here: The Collective wisely used brioche which made it airy, beautifully light. You can use back bacon – the enemy of brunches everywhere – but The Collective has gone for thick, crispy streaky bacon which was cooked bang on. Or you can be stingy with the maple syrup. So many places are, giving you one of those depressing minuscule cardboard cups, barely half-full, to trickle over. Here, the whole thing swum stickily in the stuff, exactly as it should.

This dish costs nine pounds fifty, the most expensive thing on the menu. That pricing could be seen as on the sharp side, and if you charge that much you have to get everything right, but The Collective did. I wouldn’t be doing my job as Reading’s answer to Craig Revel Horwood if I didn’t say that the icing sugar dusted on top was probably unnecessary, or that in an ideal world there would have been at least a third rasher of bacon, but those are minor details. It was a cracking brunch dish all the same, and one I’d order again without hesitation.

Coffee is by Extract, a Bristol roastery, and I liked it: definitely at or around the standard of The Collective’s neighbours. And, partly to test more of the menu but mostly out of greed, I’d also ordered a double chocolate brownie. I do wish people wouldn’t put the napkin under the cake – a hill I’ll probably die on, some day – but the brownie was impressive work, a brittle exterior giving way to a fudgy core, with tectonic plates of chocolate studded throughout. Only a slightly aggressive sweetness marred it a tiny bit: it either needed less sugar, or darker chocolate. But again, there’s a note of Revel Horwood to that observation, because I had to look hard to find any fault.

Service was a tad brusque when I first got there, for one obvious reason – they were rammed. But things got warmer and smilier as the café calmed down slightly, and the lady who took my plates away told me they weren’t usually anywhere near this busy on a Monday lunchtime. “Shouldn’t they all be at work?” I asked, fully aware of the irony in that. My meal – brunch, a latte and a brownie – came to just shy of sixteen pounds, not including tip. I walked home, propelled by a slight sugar rush, keen to get back and write this.

I was delighted to like The Collective as much as I did. It strikes me that all of Caversham’s cafés (well, ones that aren’t Costa, anyway) bring something different to the proverbial table. Gardens Of Caversham is for coffee purists, Geo Café has a particular and distinctive charm. Nathan’s Nibbles has an almost unimprovable name. But The Collective, it seems to me, is the natural successor to the much-missed (by me, anyway) Siblings Home – stylish and poised, with that interesting blend of hospitality and retail.

It also happens to cook one of the best brunches I’ve had in Reading – easily better, for instance, than Café Yolk’s. The contrast with Café Yolk is an apt one: The Collective is sleek and grown up, it buys good produce and it makes the best use of it. It feels very ‘Caversham’ – but, more than that, it reflects how Caversham would like to see itself rather than how it sometimes is (and, for the avoidance of doubt, I mean that as a compliment). So yes, another café. But more importantly, an extremely good one. Reading can always do with more of those.

The Collective – 7.9
25 Church Road, Reading, RG4 7AA
0118 3272728

https://www.thecollectivecaversham.co.uk

Restaurant review: The Coconut Tree

Of all of Reading’s new restaurants, The Coconut Tree might be the one most people have asked me to review as soon as possible. Which is in itself interesting, because The Coconut Tree has already had more write-ups online than most of Reading’s new places – but the thing is, they’re all on Instagram. Remember all that talk last year about how hospitality was on its knees and taking free shit was plain immoral? Nature is definitely healing, because The Coconut Tree’s plan for its launch was very much as they used to be in the before times – find some local Instagrammers with over five thousand followers, bung them some PR copy to include in the social media coverage, sit back and watch.

And I don’t know about you, but I learned a lot. Admittedly, nearly all of it I could have learned just from reading their menu, but it’s dead useful to discover that the food is “fresh, tasty and full of flavour” (it would be a brave restaurant that said “you know what? Lots of our stuff is stale and bland”). And to discover, from multiple Instagram posts, that one of the cocktails is set on fire in front of you: the drinks in general, allegedly, are “banging”. Did I mention the “proper good vibes”, or the fact that it’s “cool” and “trendy”? Perhaps the best summary was that “the cuisine is insane”. Sri Lankan food: utter madness! 

Of course, what none of those posts covered in much detail was that their food was all free. Their booze, too. “There wasn’t a cocktail I didn’t like” said another influencer. I bet. “Nothing too specific, we’re quite happy for you to construct the post!” said one writeup, showing that the influencer had copied and pasted all the text from the PR company without reading it first. That one was a “paid partnership”: not only did they get free food but, presumably, they were also paid to do the copying and pasting. I can’t compete with those levels of polish, sadly, so instead you get my impressions of the place after I turned up on a weekday with my friend Jerry, two Sancho Panzas in search of a Don Quixote. 

“The service is wonderful!” Jerry enthused as I met him outside the restaurant. “I went inside to see if you were there already and the lady who greeted me was absolutely lovely.”

I never went to Zizzi, so I don’t know what it used to look like, but the Coconut Tree is pretty bright and lively with an open kitchen straight ahead and the rest of it broken up into zones (along with a bizarre waiting room area at the front which looks, in the nicest sense, like a waste of space). There was a mixture of low tables and high tables with stools – in an ideal world I’d have chosen the former, but the staff led us to the latter where we sat, somewhat incongruously, under a wicker canopy. The place was fuller than I was comfortable with, but we’d deliberately chosen to eat a late lunch, so the place thinned out pretty quickly.

The lady serving us, who was every bit as friendly and engaging as the one who had greeted Jerry, talked us through the concept – because, yes, The Coconut Tree is one of those places with a concept. I imagine that one day we’ll reach the stage where the concept is “you order a starter, a main and a dessert and we bring them to you in that order, spaced at reasonable intervals”, but for the time being “concept” often refers to places like The Coconut Tree where dishes are smaller, tapas-style for sharing and they turn up in whatever order the kitchen feels like sending them.

I know this sounds crotchety – and as an aside I’ve never understood how restaurants think smaller plates are perfect for sharing – but we gladly threw ourselves into it, ordering a selection of dishes and a couple of beers. It’s a pretty big menu with plenty of small plates, a handful of larger ones and of course hoppers, coconut milk pancakes which might be Sri Lanka’s best-known dish. Much of the menu is suitable for vegans, and nearly all of it is gluten free. Most of the small dishes range between four and seven pounds, a couple of the larger ones cost slightly more and they recommend you aim for three per person, so that’s exactly what we did.

Our beer arrived first. I reckon Jerry could have been persuaded to have a cocktail – or as they put it, cocotail (sic) – but I was being well behaved. Lion is a Sri Lankan lager which they’ve apparently been making in Sri Lanka since the 1880s. Despite that, and the fact that the brewery who make it are yet to be absorbed into AB InBev like so many others, it tasted pretty generic, and I thought it was an odd decision by the staff to pour it at the bar rather than bring the can to the table. It wasn’t quite cold enough – maybe the glass hadn’t been long out of a dishwasher.   

From this point onwards, unfortunately, it gets harder to be positive. Some of that, in fairness, was our fault: we arguably could have ordered a wider variety of dishes. Some is just one of those things: the staff got part of our order wrong and brought something we didn’t want. These things happen. But a lot of the problems were down to the kitchen. 

Take the devil pork with pineapple, Jerry’s first choice from the menu. According to the menu it was spicy, sweet, tangy and sour. If only that were true: in reality it was acrid, blasting heat unsuccessfully lightened by huge chunks of pineapple, by far the predominant ingredient. The pork belly, supposedly “juicy”, was a few tough cubes here and there. This dish cost seven pounds, and I couldn’t help but think of the pork belly starter at Clay’s, where you get exponentially more pork belly, fantastically tender, fiery with ginger and sweet with jaggery and tamarind, for eight pounds fifty.

Even though I’ve only eaten Sri Lankan food a couple of times before, other dishes also came up short by comparison with other Reading places. The “Cheesy Colombo” was essentially like a paneer Manchurian, with plenty of sticky, chewy cubes of cheese. But again there wasn’t much subtlety, and an over-reliance on sweet, caramelised onions: for the same money, either one of the paneer dishes at Bhel Puri House is significantly better. The Coconut Tree’s menu describes this as “An off scale FAV!”, but given that it gives its hoppers the label “legendary” it’s maybe not one for self-deprecation: mind you, it also describes its Malay pickle as “a tropical pallet cleanser”, which makes it sound like Cillit Bang.

Speaking of the hopper, it was the one dish we ordered that I didn’t get to try. Jerry wanted one, and it did look pretty decent: relatively thin, with a just-cooked egg in the middle and clusters of sambol and more of that caramelised onion to mix together before you roll the whole thing up and eat it like a crêpe. Jerry enjoyed it: to be fair, I should point out that Jerry enjoyed our meal far more than I did.

The rest was meh. As I said, we ordered two dishes that were dangerously similar – my mistake for not paying attention – namely battered mushrooms and battered cuttlefish. The latter was the better of the two – the cuttlefish was fresh and tender, but the dish still lacked any crisp or crunch from the polenta batter. Instead the contents had steamed away inside the coating, and just for good measure they’d dumped some more caramelised onions on top.

The cuttlefish was meant to be spicy, but instead was more cloying from those ever-present onions. The mushrooms were like that but less interesting, another enamel dish of disappointment, like something you’d get from the ready meal aisle in a supermarket. Or Iceland. Underwhelming as these dishes were, they still deserve a better photo than this fuzzy one I managed to get of them: I can only apologise.

We ordered some yellow rice to go with our dishes, but none were saucy enough to need it. And given the spiel about dishes coming out as and when, it’s odd that everything came practically at once, very soon after we placed our order.

Well, everything apart from one dish. I’d really wanted to try the chicken kotthu because it’s always been one of my favourite South Indian dishes, that comforting mix of meat and carbs. But instead, the staff brought out a different kotthu dish from the one we’d ordered. They were nice as pie about taking it back, but we waited and waited for its replacement to arrive, to no avail. By the time we had finished all of our food and pretty much drained our beer we were ready to leave, so we asked for the bill. “Don’t you want your chicken kotthu?” said the waitress, and we had to say no. God knows what had happened to it – like I said, they were busy when we got there, but they got a lot quieter soon after.

I get no joy from saying all this, because all the staff were lovely, lively, friendly and seemed to be huge fans of the restaurant. At the moment, when hospitality staff are hard to get hold of, I think The Coconut Tree should do its utmost to hang on to the ones they have, but they deserve better food to bring to the table. Our bill came to twenty five pounds, including an optional ten per cent tip – and if that seems on the low side, that’s because The Coconut Tree is offering its own version of Eat Out To Help Out for the rest of this year, with fifty per cent off all food Monday to Wednesday. It seems harsh that The Coconut Tree is effectively halving its staff’s tips on those days, so our tip was based on the full amount: if you go there, you should consider doing that too.

“It’s very busy Monday to Wednesday” said our server. “Although it’s also packed Fridays and Saturdays to be honest, so Thursday’s the only quiet day. At weekends” – she pointed to the bizarre waiting area at the front, low stools and no tables – “we even have customers eating there, because we’re that full.” 

Having eaten at The Coconut Tree, I’m afraid I don’t understand why. I guess it’s a combination of all that money off and the fascination of the new. It would be easy to chalk this up as another example of a chain that jumped the shark shortly before opening in Reading, but I’ve been to the original branch in Cheltenham, a couple of years ago, and although my meal there was better than this one, it didn’t blow me away either. And this isn’t about Sri Lankan cuisine – I’ve eaten at Hoppers in Covent Garden and adored my meal there – which meant that when it came to The Coconut Tree I expected more all round: more inventiveness, more complexity. 

But everything at the Coconut Tree, in terms of flavour, is very much in primary colours – and bright ones at that, because I didn’t get any subtlety or nuance. Maybe that’s what all those influencers meant by “banging” and “insane”. Perhaps it will find its feet, but if you’re hoping this adds an exciting new dimension to Reading’s dining scene I reckon you may need to think again. I’ll probably give it another chance, to see if other dishes have the wow factor I missed – the goat curry’s meant to be the best thing I didn’t try – but I do wonder how it will fare once the novelty, and that fifty per cent discount, wear off.

I ought to point out, as I did earlier, that Jerry enjoyed the meal far more than I did. But what does Jerry know? He likes me, after all.

The Coconut Tree – 6.6
64 Kings Road, Reading, RG1 3BJ
0118 3383921

https://www.thecoconut-tree.com/reading

Restaurant review: Buon Appetito

A couple of Mondays ago I was walking through town around lunchtime, and I noticed that every table outside Bill’s was occupied. The sun was shining, and Bill’s has one of the best al fresco spots in Reading, but even so: every single table? Then I walked past Jollibee on Broad Street, with a queue outside, just like every day since it opened. As I looped back down Friar Street I noticed, through the windows, that Wendy’s was packed.  We can congratulate ourselves on promoting an independent, thriving Reading, through the money we spend and the businesses we amplify on social media, but the fact remains that chain restaurants have a huge hold on our town and its customers. 

The struggle is real, and relentless. Recently a branch of Sri Lankan themed chain The Coconut Tree opened, and influencers surfaced on Instagram raving about how good their (free) food was. It is next door to South Indian restaurant Pappadam’s, which has been there for years. Last week Gordon Ramsay opened a restaurant in the Oracle – one of five new burger restaurants coming to Reading – and gave out a thousand free burgers. Berkshire Live ran a breathless story enthusing about the opening. Of course they did, because it’s easier to Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V some guff from a PR company than it is to write a real story (although in Berkshire Live’s defence they subsequently reviewed the burger, and didn’t rate it).

The uncomfortable reality, even if we wish it wasn’t so, is that chain restaurants in general, and American ones in particular, do well in this town. Last month Deliveroo revealed Reading’s five most frequently-ordered dishes. Who made the list? Taco Bell, Wingstop, Shake Shack and Five Guys. The only thing preventing a clean sweep by American chains was the holder of the top spot, from German Doner Kebab. They wouldn’t make my top hundred dishes in Reading, let alone take the crown. Maybe Reading’s favourite illness is dyspepsia. Or dysentery, you never know.

If you’re reading this you probably have at least a passing interest in Reading’s independent restaurants, so perhaps you’re mystified (or depressed) by the continuing popularity of places like Taco Bell. It’s easy to forget, in an echo chamber that buys local, supports indie businesses and slopes off to the farmer’s market a couple of times a month, that most people in Reading would still rather queue for Wendy’s.

Even if you support independent businesses, there are other ways to be out of step. I’ve never quite “got” some of Reading’s fêted indies. I freely admit that Sweeney and Todd is one of them, Quattro is another. A third, the subject of this week’s review, is Buon Appetito. It’s always been highly rated on TripAdvisor, yet when I went there over five years ago I was bemused by the rave reviews. Years later the wonderful Tuscany opened down the Oxford Road and I had another, better pizza option; I never returned to Buon Appetito.

Yet here we are in 2021, Tuscany closed over two ago, and Buon Appetito is still going strong. It’s still highly rated on Trip Advisor. More to the point, the pictures on its Instagram account look a world away from the greasy, cheese-sodden edible cardboard I waded through back in 2016. Flicking through them made me feel decidedly peckish. So I decided to take another look, accompanied by my friend Nick, fresh from his previous appearance in this blog and not put off by the whole experience of being immortalised in print.

Buon Appetito has made the best of an unlovely spot. Like many canny businesses they’ve done great things with their outside space, with plenty of tables and some little booths with circular pub tables and heaters on the wall. Everything was covered by a corrugated plastic roof, and more corrugated plastic formed a partition closing off much of the view of Chatham Street. It will set them up perfectly for winter, and the overall effect made me feel like I was on holiday. That sensation was only accentuated by the soundtrack, which sounded like hotel lobby jazz covers of popular songs. I started out thinking the music was deeply naff, but by the end it had won me over and I’d used Shazam to work out who the band was (The Cooltrane Quartet, since you asked).

Service was bright, friendly and immediate. Rather than relegate it to the end of the review it deserves to be mentioned early and often, because the woman who looked after us all evening was brilliant. Every restaurant should have a front of house like this: warm, enthusiastic, likeable and with opinions about the dishes you ought to try. She brought us a couple of pints of Peroni (the drinks selection isn’t the widest at Buon Appetito) and we began the process of picking through the menu.

“I’m not a fussy eater, but there are four things I won’t eat” said Nick.

“What are they?” I mentally ran through my own list of no-nos, but apart from the obvious ones, like tripe, I could only come up with sweetcorn and dried fruit.

“Blue cheese, obviously. It’s mouldy. You’re literally eating mould.”

I couldn’t help but feel Nick was missing out, but I didn’t interject.

“And raw coriander. It’s awful, it just tastes soapy. It’s genetic, you know.” Having been closely associated with a coriander hater in the past, I’d been told this fact more times than I cared to recall. Can’t you just tell restaurants you’re allergic? I used to ask: apparently not.

“What are the other two?”

“Olives! They just always taste so bitter to me, it doesn’t matter what colour they are. And the last one’s marzipan.”

I could eat marzipan by the block, cutting it like cheese – I have, in my day – but I let that pass. I looked at the menu and mentally struck a virtual red pen through all the items with olives or blue cheese in them: it was more than a few (I was surprised, given our last meal out, that snails hadn’t made the list).

The menu was mainstream but better and more well put together than the one I remembered from my previous visit. It was compact in the right places – only four pasta mains, for instance – and more expansive where that made sense. It’s okay to have many different pizzas because ultimately many of the core ingredients are frequently the same. Pricing was consistent and reasonable – nearly all the pizzas and pasta dishes ranged between ten and fourteen pounds and starters were around the seven pound mark, or more expensive and big enough to share.

Pizzas were a mixture of recognisably Italian combinations – plenty of ‘nduja on there, and the classic Neopolitan pizza with anchovies, capers and olives – and options from further afield. The Honolulu and the Hawaiian, both of which featured pineapple, constituted the lunatic fringe. “I quite like pineapple on pizza” said Nick, “but I won’t order it: you’ll get hate mail from Italians.” I wondered what Italians would make of a vegetarian pizza called “Garden Of Eatin”, but perhaps they’d made their peace with that.

If all of our meal had been like our starters, the rating you’ve already scrolled down to check would have been lower. Calamari was decent, though: it mightn’t have had the tenderness of ultra-fresh squid, but it wasn’t rubbery either. It came with a gentle aioli: a bigger honk of garlic wouldn’t have gone amiss. Even so, it was better than the same dish at the Fisherman’s Cottage a few months back, by which token it was better than most calamari I’ve had in Reading over the years.

The other dish, king prawns with chorizo, was merely pleasant. They were nice plump prawns, three of them, with plenty of sweet flesh once you’d yanked off the head and opened up the shell. The problem was everything else. I know chorizo isn’t Italian, which made the dish potentially slightly incongruous. But worse, this chorizo was nothing special – thick, coarse and bouncy without heat or the terrific crimson oil that colours everything it touches. The menu said that this was cooked with garlic and extra virgin olive oil, but I got little or no garlic, just an anonymous orange puddle under the prawns that didn’t taste of enough.

I began to worry that history would repeat itself: I haven’t doled out a poor rating this year, and I’m somewhat dreading the first time I have an iffy meal on duty. But then our pizzas arrived and those worries, and indeed any other cares I might have had, dissipated in a cloud of carbs. Based on what I’d seen on social media I fully expected Buon Appetito’s 2021 pizzas to be an improvement on the one I had in 2016, but what I wasn’t prepared for is just how improved they would be. They weren’t just better than the previous one I’d eaten at Buon Appetito, they were better than any I’ve had in Reading and many I’ve had further afield.

Now, I can understand you being sceptical: it was only a few weeks ago that I said I might have discovered Reading’s best sandwich, and here I am saying that Buon Appetito does Reading’s best pizza. I couldn’t blame you for thinking I’m busting out hype for the sake of it. But I try hard to be sparing with the superlatives – not everywhere can be the best ever – and by any standards Buon Appetito’s pizza was extraordinary. The base was night and day compared to what I’d eaten before, with a beautifully bubbled, puffy crust with a little leopard-spotting and a deeply satisfying chewiness. 

The toppings – I’d gone for the Napoli, which has always been my ideal pizza – were superb. A great tomato base, just enough cheese, lots of salty anchovies, a judicious helping of sharp, tangy capers and those black olives Nick was so averse to. I think this particular pizza is the choice of salt and vinegar fans everywhere and when it’s perfectly in balance, as it was here, it’s a full-on, sing-at-the-top-of-your-voice truly joyous thing to eat. Better than Papa Gee’s, better than The Last Crumb’s, better even than Tuscany used to be. I loved it, and knowing I could rock up to Buon Appetito any time and order this pizza again for a mere eleven pounds was both a wonderful and a dangerous discovery. 

Nick’s pizza showcased that great base in a completely different direction. The “Calabrian” manages to appear on the menu twice, once halfway through and once at the end of the list of pizzas. But it was a masterpiece of pared-down simplicity – tomato sauce, mozzarella, clusters of ‘nduja, basil leaves: nothing else. Nick had never had ‘nduja before – in 2021, can you believe it? – and though he ordered it with abandon, he approached it with trepidation. “Yes, it’s hot, but it’s good” he said, just before our waitress came up and asked, part sympathetically, part playfully, whether he needed a glass of milk. “We have chilli oil, if you want to make it hotter” she added. But Nick was happy with his choice: from where I was sitting it looked a smart one.

“That was good, wasn’t it?” Nick said.

“It really was. Hold on, is that a Latin jazz cover version of Never Gonna Give You Up?”

“Certainly sounds like it.”

We asked for the dessert menu, because I’ve always felt it’s rude not to at least look. It was on the right side of too big, with four desserts and some variations on the theme of gelato and sorbetto, along with an espresso martini which had wandered over from the cocktail menu. “The panna cotta and tiramisu are the best ones” our waitress told us. “Although our banoffee pie is very good too. We import it from Italy, along with our Torta Rocher”. I suspect they come in frozen from a company called DiSotto, which also provides Buon Appetito’s ice cream and sorbet.  

We took our waitress’ advice. Nick’s tiramisu was a hefty helping, on the rustic side with huge, boozy savoiardi biscuits (or lady fingers, as you probably should no longer call them) and loads of mascarpone under a blanket of cocoa powder. He liked it, but was too full to make significant inroads into it. I gallantly stepped up purely so I could tell you what it was like, namely serviceable. Only now, looking at the DiSotto website, do I clock that they sell a defrost-it-yourself tiramisu which looks strikingly like this one. I’d love to think Buon Appetito makes its own, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The panna cotta was a strange one: I’m used to it turned out and quivering on the plate whereas this one had been imprisoned in a little sundae dish. There was an enjoyable pistachio mousse underneath, the beautiful crunch of a candied pistachio crumb on top. All tasty enough, but it felt more like an upside-down, out-of-kilter cheesecake than a panna cotta. I’m not sure the panna cotta element – hemmed in, unable to wobble freely – worked.

“Pretty good” said Nick, “but not as good as Laura’s panna cotta.” I tried his other half’s panna cotta not long ago: he’s right.

The restaurant had a steady flow of customers throughout our meal without ever seeming busy. But it was a Wednesday evening close to payday: perhaps that was a factor. “Inside is very nice too, you should eat there next time” said our waitress as she brought the bill, along with a couple of shot glasses of a Kermit-green pistachio liqueur like next level Bailey’s. Three courses and two and a half pints each came to seventy-eight pounds, not including tip.

As I said, night and day; I still think that the place I went to five years ago left a lot to be desired, but aside from being in the same building and doing Italian cuisine I don’t see many remnants of the Buon Appetito that left me nonplussed. They’ve created a properly lovely space, the service is spot on and if part of the menu were merely not bad or even so-so, the plusses outweighed that in spades. The biggest of those plusses is the pizza, which for my money is one of the best I can remember.  

I wish there were more sunny days ahead, because few pleasures can match pizza and beer on a sunny day, but those little booths will be very inviting when the nights draw in, especially for those of us who aren’t sure how much indoor dining we plan to do in what remains of 2021. With Buon Appetito, Chef Stevie’s Caribbean Kitchen and the Nag’s Head, that little piece of West Reading is looking like the best gastronomic micro-climate the town has to offer. Chatham Street, a food hub: who’d have thought it?

Buon Appetito – 8.0
146-148 Chatham Street, Reading, RG1 7HT
0118 3276947

https://www.buonappetitoreading.co.uk
Delivery available: via Just Eat, Deliveroo, UberEats