As a restaurant reviewer, however assiduously you do your research, however good you think you are at reading the runes of a menu to try and figure out whether a Brakes lorry regularly pulls up outside the crime scene, however much you trawl through Tripadvisor or other blogs – good luck finding those, by the way – restaurants always retain the capacity to surprise.
You can expect somewhere to be good, all the signs can say it will be, but there’s always a possibility that you’ll wind up with an underwhelming meal if you’re lucky, an out-and out-duffer if you’re not. This is especially the case when hype is involved. Or plain gratitude that a place has opened at all, either because a big name is gracing a town with its presence or because the town in question is a wasteland for decent places to eat.
The more refreshing phenomenon is when it happens the other way round, when you go to an unspecial-looking restaurant with no particular expectations only to discover that you have a proper find on your hands. That realisation that dawns gradually throughout the meal, that sense of hold on, this is really good, is one of my favourite things about restaurants, and about reviewing them. It’s happened to me a fair few times, but one that’s always stayed with me was the March evening over seven years ago when I crossed the threshold of Papa Gee.
Papa Gee, back in 2015, was an Italian restaurant on the Caversham Road, on the ground floor of the Rainbows Lodge Hotel. I’d never heard of anyone who had been to Papa Gee, and at the time I knew people who lived in Little Wales, the maze of streets on the other side of the Caversham Road named after Cardiff, Swansea, Newport. Every time I walked past Papa Gee, probably en route to a booking at Mya Lacarte, the place seemed closed.
Inauspicious was putting it lightly. So nobody was more surprised than me when I found Papa Gee wasn’t some kind of white elephant but was instead a hugely creditable little restaurant doing belting pizzas, rather nice pasta and antipasti, a family business with owner and Neapolitan Gaetano Abete, the eponymous Papa Gee, in the kitchen. I had a splendid evening, although arguably the cherry on the cake was not having to stay in the hotel upstairs afterwards.
I walked away with my faith in the world somewhat restored, and it turned out to be one of the most delightful curveballs of the very early days of this blog. And the weird thing is, people definitely went to Papa Gee before I reviewed it. It’s not as if I discovered the place: it had decent writeups on TripAdvisor and had been trading for over ten years. It’s just that I’d never met a Papa Gee customer, back then. Maybe they didn’t want the rest of us finding out.
I was worried about Papa Gee after that, because the owners of Rainbows Lodge sold the building to the Easy Hotel chain a couple of years later and the restaurant was out on its ear. But then they announced what, with the benefit of hindsight, was a perfect move – and in October 2017 they took over the old Mya Lacarte site on Prospect Street, closer to the action in Caversham.
It was a brave move to open slap bang opposite Quattro, Caversham’s long-serving Italian restaurant, and the conditions got even tougher a couple of years later when the Last Crumb, also offering pizza, opened at the top of the road where the Prince Of Wales used to be. And yet here we are in 2022 and, post-pandemic, Papa Gee is still going.
And that’s partly why they’re the subject of this week’s review. The thing is, I’d never visited them in their new home and I was starting to feel bad about that; I didn’t want them to be continually on my to do list only to find, one day, that they’d closed before I’d got round to visiting. So I made my way there with Zoë on a Friday evening, post work, the weekend stretching out ahead waiting to be filled with units and calories. Like the very first time I visited Papa Gee, a lifetime ago, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.
It was weird setting foot in the room where I’d had so many great meals when it was Mya Lacarte, but at the same time it felt completely natural to have Papa Gee in that spot. It helps that it’s a lovely dining room. It’s double aspect with windows on both edges of the street corner; someone long ago made the very sensible decision to move the entrance to the side of the building, and it really helps to create a lively, convivial space.
And I needn’t have worried about Papa Gee because, at half seven on a Friday night, almost every table was already occupied. It made me think: how long was it, in Reading at least, since I’d visited a really busy restaurant? I’d almost forgotten the atmosphere of one, all the life and celebratory excitement contained in a dining room on one of the busiest nights of the week. Restaurants are not an exact, empirical science: you can judge menus, rooms and dishes all you like, but when a place is full of happy diners a magical transformation happens and the whole thing is infinitely more than the sum of its parts.
That was very much in full swing as we took our seats – big groups of friends, couples sitting by the window on dates, people catching up, or celebrating, or just rejoicing that the working week was over: all Caversham life was there. And it didn’t seem, from the easy way the customers had with the staff, that anybody there was a newcomer to Papa Gee.
Speaking of service, there was another happy reunion in store because the first member of staff I saw was Ihor. Now, back when I first visited Papa Gee Ihor was running the front of house at Kyrenia and, to my mind, did as good a job of front of house as anybody in Reading at the time. Then Kyrenia got sold and became Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus (but the menus and the website and the sign on the front still said Kyrenia) and now it’s called Spitiko. And somewhere during that slightly chaotic transition Ihor parted company with them.
I’d heard he was working at Papa Gee since they relocated but it was still a joy to see him – still slim, moustachioed and apologetically friendly, seemingly not having aged a day since our paths crossed six years ago. And again, it just felt like he was exactly where he was meant to be: of course Papa Gee would end up on this Caversham street corner, and of course Ihor would wind up working here. It made a kind of innate cosmic sense. It felt right.
Now all this wouldn’t mean much if the food turned out to be bobbins, but fortunately we weren’t in that territory at all. Zoë’s starter of spaghetti carbonara – a good reference dish in any Italian restaurant – was streets ahead of most that I’ve tried. It showed up the albino monstrosity at Cozze and while eating it, enjoying the crispy nuggets of guanciale, Zoë muttered darkly about the awful meat-free carbonara she’d been tricked with at Sonny Stores, Bristol’s darling of the broadsheets. This, a starter portion, was far bigger and about half the price. They gave Zoë the option of having it with or without cream and for my money she chose wrong: but even diluted with cream it still had that golden colour, although the flavour was a bit dialled down for my liking.
It probably pipped my starter though, the polpetto al sugo. The meatballs are billed as homemade and they definitely had the irregularity of ones rolled with gusto in the kitchen. They had a perfect coarse texture, too – no disturbingly smooth homogeneity here – but I would have liked a little more seasoning. That said, they were cosseted by a beautiful, sticky, reduced tomato sauce which did much to improve matters, along with a couple of slightly pointless slices of toasted ciabatta, assembled like a makeshift toast rack. Some surprisingly intense and welcome basil leaves finished things off. Put it this way: I’m glad I tried it, but if I’d gone for the larger portion, or had them in pasta, I think I’d have found it a bit monotonous.
Our mains turned up a little more briskly than I’d have chosen, ten or fifteen minutes after we’d dispatched our starters. But in my experience extremely busy restaurants tend to go one of two ways: they either take ages or bang things out with military precision. Papa Gee was very much the latter, and we’d barely finished our Aperol Spritzes when our mains were brought to the table. But again, I found I didn’t mind. There’s a certain magic in being in a nice room where everybody seems to be having a marvellous time and as I’ve already said, the last two and a half years haven’t had enough of it.
Zoë’s pollo al gorgonzola was delicious. It’s another reference dish (she had it, for instance, when we visited Newbury’s charming Mio Fiore) and you can argue that it’s a pretty basic choice but there’s still an alchemy to doing it well. Everything was present and correct here: a generous chicken breast, cooked spot on, some crispy-edged potatoes and the thing it’s all about – an awful lot of creamy sauce chock full of mushrooms and honking with the salty funk of blue cheese.
Done well there are few nicer things to eat on a Friday night, and this was definitely done well. It was decent value at eighteen pounds, too, although it could have stood to lose the unnecessary salad. We’d ordered some courgette fries on the side, but for my money they were a little limp and lacking the crispness they needed.
Ordinarily I’d make a beeline for my usual, a pizza with anchovies, capers and olives. But I wanted to renew my acquaintance with arguably Papa Gee’s most iconic dish, the pizza Sofia Loren (there’s a picture of her on the wall, along with one of Maradona, Napoli’s favourite adopted son). It comes topped with red onion, crumbled sausage meat, pepperoni and red onions and it truly is a force of nature, as far as a dish can be.
Every element on it worked perfectly together – the sausage lent a little nip of what I thought was fennel, the pepperoni was the workhorse, all crisped at the perimeter, dimpled with a little dab of oil in the middle, the onions had exactly the right amount of sweetness and bite. There was chilli in there, too, and it felt like it had been mixed with the tomato base to give a slowly building heat rather than chilli bombs all over the place. I sense that Papa Gee spent some time getting this pizza right and the remaining fifteen years or so not fucking with it at all, and I liked it a great deal.
I also liked how haphazard it was – Papa Gee tops pizzas as he would like to eat them, a gastronomic “do unto others”, and there’s no margin counting or rationing like you’d see at the likes of Franco Manca, with your regulation six pieces of chorizo spaced at regular intervals. To continue with the comparisons, I’d say Papa Gee’s pizza is up there with Buon Appetito, its West Reading peer. Although Buon Appetito’s base maybe has the edge, even if Papa Gee’s menu charmingly says that the dough is “left to levitate for 24 hours!”
Desserts were slightly anticlimactic, though by no means terrible. Zoë enjoyed her tiramisu – more boozy, more sponge-heavy than many we’ve tried lately. But I still enjoyed it, and I got to try more of it than usual because she was replete with carbs. My cannolo was probably the most disappointing bit of the meal – the shell was all bend and no snap, and it felt a little bit past its best. Maybe that’s what happens when you order one at nine o’clock at night. But the core of ricotta, chocolate and a few nubbins of candied orange still had a lot going for it, as did the shot of amaro I sipped away at afterwards.
Although I’ve singled out Ihor – possibly just because it was so nice to see him again – service at Papa Gee is definitely an ensemble effort. There were three wait staff looking after a relatively compact room and they clearly work as a team with good humour and an impressive work ethic, and I felt from start to finish like they had many returning customers. They charmed the socks off them, so it’s hardly a surprise: I fully expect I’ll be a returning customer too. Our bill for three courses each, a couple of aperitivi each and mineral water came to just over a hundred pounds, and I had no argument with that.
This feels like the second time in quick succession that I’ve ended a review talking about central Reading’s much-missed Dolce Vita. Sorry about that. But it’s appropriate, because Papa Gee feels like the spiritual heir to Dolce Vita, more than anywhere I’ve been in Reading since it closed. Some of the food is very good, most of the rest is quite good and the worst of it is not bad. But I review restaurants, not meals, and to talk only about the dishes would be missing the point.
Because places like Papa Gee, and Dolce Vita for that matter, are about much more than food. They’re about the room, the welcome, the feelings they create and the memories they make. They’re about being part of something bigger than your table for one, for two or for four. All restaurants are, really. They should be, anyway. And that’s where Papa Gee comes into its own, because they’ve built something wonderful there. Of course they have: they’ve had over fifteen years to get really, really good at it. So perhaps Papa Gee has lost the capacity to surprise that it had when visited it back in 2015 but on my latest visit, as on my first, I left the restaurant wanting to tell all and sundry about the brilliant time I’d had.
On the way out, in the hallway, I saw two framed pictures one above the other: paintings of the old and new premises, the past and the present. Silly perhaps, but it gave me the feels.
Papa Gee – 7.9
5 Prospect Street, Reading, RG4 8JB