Restaurant review: San Sicario

“What was this place before it was Cozze?” said Zoe as we flipped through the menus at San Sicario, the newish Italian restaurant at the bottom of the Caversham Road which has replaced Cozze’s central Reading branch.

“How long have you got? Before Cozze it was a Mexican restaurant called Maracas. And before that it was another Italian place called Casa Roma. Casa Roma and Maracas were owned by the same people…”

“…and they changed it to Maracas because they could use all the letters from their old sign? You’ve told me that story before.”

I smiled, although I did wonder if it was a good thing to have reached the you’ve told me that story before stage in our relationship.

“Yes, and before that it was a Lebanese restaurant called El Tarboush. That wasn’t bad actually – this would have been around 2009. Before that it was a place called La Fontana, but they moved out to Twyford.”

“Another Italian?”

“More generic Mediterranean, really. And before that it was a restaurant called Chi’s Oriental Brasserie. Now that was a restaurant! It was run by a chap called Wayne Wong from Cardiff, of all places. I still remember their XO chilli prawns. They ended up moving to the spot where Buon Appetito is now. I did karaoke there once, would you believe.”

Suddenly I had memories of nights in that restaurant over twenty years ago. At the time, I was going out with a woman who took great pride in stealing a six inch, brushed steel soap dispenser from Chi’s Oriental Brasserie’s ladies’ toilets: it was, with hindsight, one of many indicators that we wanted different things out of life.

“It keeps defaulting to Italian, I suppose.”

“Sort of. I guess Italian is a go-to option in this country – it tends to be mid-priced, it’s easy to do multiple pizzas and pasta dishes. Even now we still tend as a nation to have Italian out and Chinese or Indian food for a takeaway.” 

That doesn’t tell the whole story, though, because before this place was San Sicario it was San Carlo – same location, same owners, but a name they had to cease and desist from using barely a month after they opened last November because of a large national chain of Italian restaurants called San Carlo. 

I felt for San Sicario when I heard that – a far from auspicious start in a site where, if history was anything to go by, the owners would need every lucky break they could get. That’s when I made a mental note to pay San Sicario a visit sooner, rather than later.

“It’s got to be better than Cozze, anyway.”

Zoe was right about that – Cozze, San Sicario’s predecessor, had been terrible. I still remembered my meal there, eating carbonara paler than Cate Blanchett. It was a mystery how they’d ever expanded to three branches.

The interior of San Sicario was especially jarring: the glassware might have been different – and rather fancy – but the furniture, the banquettes, the exposed brick-effect wallpaper and the faux Kandinsky wall art had all been inherited from Cozze. Literally inherited: they’d lightened up some of the colour scheme, but it was fundamentally exactly the same. 

It was a big room, and the owners hadn’t really done anything to break it up into zones or to soften the noise – a room which really had to be full not to look a bit strange, although full it would have been deafening. On a Saturday lunchtime it was far from packed, with about three other tables occupied. Another three or so groups came for lunch after we sat down.

The first sign that this was a very different beast from Cozze came when I paid attention to the menu. I was never sure just how Italian a restaurant could be when it did chicken wings and burgers, but San Sicario’s menu left you in no doubt that it was a Proper Italian Restaurant. The menu was big – possibly too big – but it didn’t feel like it was chasing customers from Prezzo or Zizzi; the chef has cooked at Pepe Sale, and that felt far more the ballpark here. 

That doesn’t mean that San Sicario didn’t sell pasta and pizza – far from it, they did – but the pasta was an interesting range of sauces and shapes rather than a boilerplate way of flogging the two in an almost infinite number of combinations (just typing this reminds me, by the way, how little I miss Wolf Italian Street Food). But there was also a reasonably priced set lunch menu, which they even offered on Saturdays, a specials menu with five additional dishes on it and a Valentine’s Day menu, which I assume they hadn’t got round to removing yet.

The main thing I thought, looking at the menu, was that these were classic dishes and combinations, and that if the restaurant could pull them off it would be the kind of restaurant Reading hasn’t had for some time. I know many people miss Dolce Vita, and others miss what Pepe Sale used to be before the original owners sold up. Some, for that matter, still talk about Nino’s. But really, I’m not sure Reading has had a truly classic Italian restaurant since Topo Gigio closed.

Our first dishes came as we were making inroads into a couple of very servicable drinks – a powerful negroni for her, a G&T made with fragrant Italian gin for me – and they made for an excellent start. According to the restaurant’s social media they make their own bread and focaccia every day, and they were both pretty decent, especially the focaccia which came sliced into little cubes, perfect for dipping in oil and balsamic vinegar, just enough salt scattered on the crust. We saved the bread for mopping, showing uncharacteristic foresight.

I picked the best of the starters, which is something I don’t get to say often enough. White crab meat came heaped onto what could have been crème fraîche or mascarpone, the whole thing sitting on a potato rosti. Simple, elegant, pristine flavours, and if the advertised watercress was nowhere to be seen I was hardly complaining, as it would have thrown the whole thing out of kilter. 

It wasn’t perfect – the rosti could have done with more lightness and crispness, and felt more like a latke, and I had a few bits of shell in the crab – but none of that detracted from just how delightful it was. And could I think of anywhere else in Reading where this dish would end up on the menu? Not really.

That was one of the specials, as was Zoë’s starter. Calamarata, a shape of pasta I’ve never had before, are short thick rings of pasta thought to resemble calamari (they were obviously named by somebody who’d never eaten a packet of Hula Hoops, that’s all I’m saying). They were paired up with a tantalising-sounding ragu made with beef, lamb, pork and veal. Four different animals on one plate: just imagine!

For what it’s worth, I enjoyed this dish more than Zoë did – just as well because, as a generous-sized starter, I got to finish it. The sauce hugged the pasta better than I was expecting and I quite liked the ragu which was studded with tender meat. But I agreed with Zoë that the ragu was a little unbalanced – it was underseasoned, which meant the sharpness of the tomato was more prominent than it should have been. A carpet of parmesan couldn’t save it, although maybe it would have done if it had been a lot thicker.

A final starter sounded so good, and looked so good online, that we were greedy and ordered it to share. A pile of wild mushrooms – accurately described for once – was sticky and reduced, topped with a crispy breadcrumbed egg. The egg was cooked just right, with only a little over-wobbly egg white, and when cut open the yolk worked its magic spreading across the mushrooms, an edible sunrise. 

Again, it was a dish so close to superb but not quite there – I wanted more savoury depth in the mushrooms, and that was missing. I didn’t mind that it was on the small side, and I didn’t mind that it was a tiny bit pricey (it was just under a tenner), but I did mind that. If the flavour had been spot on, none of that would have mattered in the slightest.

All that said, main courses were pretty good. Zoë’s lamb rump was expertly cooked, far better than at, say, London Street Brasserie, and four really generous slices of it were fanned out on top of a very creditable caponata with plenty of black olives, the whole thing bathed in jus. The salsa verde was denser than Owen Jones, but considerably more appetising (and like Owen Jones, a little went a very long way). This dish wasn’t cheap at just over twenty-five quid, but I thought it was probably about its money. Again, Zoë found it a smidge underseasoned. She might have been right.

Saltimbocca has always been one of my favourite dishes, and since Dolce Vita closed nearly five years ago I’ve never found one that came close. San Sicario’s, I’m pleased to say, did – three pieces of veal, topped with prosciutto and luxuriating in butter and sage is one of the loveliest, simplest plates of food you can eat. Again, I feel a bit like I’m kicking a puppy saying this but it needed more – more butter, more sage, more seasoning, more oomph. The courgettes it was served with were pleasant enough, and certainly not cooked to mulch, but they felt like a bit of a plod without plenty of that butter to trawl them through. In my mind I was hoping for courgette fritti, but it wasn’t to be.

We did, however, make an excellent choice of side. Potatoes were wonderfully bronzed cylinders, all crinkled edges that spoke of a far healthier relationship with fat than I’ve ever managed. They were more fondant potato than roast potato, and all the better for it. Three pounds fifty, too, which is ludicrous value. “This is a lot better than that medley of veg you get at Pepe Sale” said Zoë. I couldn’t agree more.

By this point the restaurant was as full as it was going to get at lunchtime, and it was interesting how that exposed some problems with the service and the space. We eventually ordered some wine – a glass of barbera for Zoë and a sauvignon blanc for me – after we finished our starters. Both were lovely, but by the time they’d arrived our mains were in front of us. We hadn’t specified what size we wanted, he hadn’t asked and he brought us large glasses, which isn’t really what we wanted.

We didn’t make anything of it, it wasn’t a biggie, but there were a few niggles like that. The waiter was absolutely lovely, and quite up front about his limited English – still, of course, infinitely better than my Italian – but there was just the one of him and he did seem to struggle a little with half a dozen tables demanding his attention. And the room was so big, and the tables were so spaced out, that it could be difficult to grab him when you needed him.

I would say desserts are San Sicario’s weak point. The menu sensibly only has half a dozen, but they don’t bowl you over. Having ordered tiramisu at practically every Italian restaurant I’ve reviewed since 2019 we gave it a miss this time, although it turned up at a neighbouring table and looked good. Zoë chose a cheesecake, and enjoyed it without ever going into raptures. It was billed as a vanilla lemon cheesecake with berry compote – talk about covering your bases – but actually it was a slab without compote and with a layer of fruit jelly on top. I didn’t try it, but tellingly I didn’t especially want to.

I’d picked an affogato, prompted by fond memories of the one Tamp Culture used to do back in the day. It was entry level – two scoops of vanilla ice cream that could have been Walls, a jug of burnt-tasting espresso and, allegedly, some amaretto. It looked like the ice cream might have had a few molecules of the stuff splashed over it, but not enough to taste of it. When a dessert is this simple, every aspect of it should be good. With this one, none of it really was.

Our bill for all that food, a couple of drinks each and a post-prandial espresso came to one hundred and thirty pounds, not including tip, and took a fair old while to conjure up. I actually think quite a lot of what we had was pretty decent value, and it’s also worth pointing out that for the time being the restaurant is offering 20% off food Tuesday to Thursday via their Facebook page. After we settled up we went to Phantom for a drink, and it was hosting some kind of punk pop festival which made me feel ancient – I’m old enough to remember Basket Case the first time round – so we hopped into a taxi, went to Double Barrelled and had a very pleasant couple of hours working our way through the pales on offer. A perfect Reading Saturday.

If it’s brave to open a restaurant in the winter of 2022, knowing everything we know, it’s especially brave to open the kind of restaurant San Sicario is. I think the lower end of the market, your Franco Mancas and Zizzis, are possibly better protected from the economic shocks of the moment than somewhere unapologetically upmarket like San Sicario. And that’s before you factor in that their site is enormous. That their site is in a location that’s not in town or in Caversham, with limited parking. That it’s a site that has proved to be a poisoned chalice for so many restaurants. Then consider all the faff and palaver of revealing your name in November and having to change it literally on the 3rd of January – talk about New Year, new you – and San Sicario starts to look positively heroic.

And yet I really hope they make a go of it. It’s truly encouraging to see somewhere trying to offer what Reading doesn’t have – a genuine, interesting, high-end Italian that doesn’t just pile up the pizza and pasta, lazy variations on a theme, and try to take easy money. Some of the dishes I had I simply wouldn’t have been able to get elsewhere in Reading, and the fundamentals of the restaurant are solid. They need to tighten up the service a little, and I’d like them to be a little more liberal with the seasoning, but in honesty there’s nothing wrong with San Sicario that a few more customers wouldn’t solve.

Restaurants run better busier, and if I’d been there on a Saturday night, all buzz and bustle, I suspect it could have been fun enough to quite make me forget the glory days of Chi’s Oriental Brasserie. I will be back, and I sincerely hope San Sicario breaks the duck of one of Reading’s unluckiest sites. After all across town, in an equally ill-starred space, their compatriots Madoo have proved that it can be done.

San Sicario – 7.6
93-97 Caversham Road, RG1 8AN
0118 9560200


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