I’m delighted to announce an ER readers’ competition in partnership with Namaste Momo.
Back in 2017, when I returned to restaurant reviewing after a hiatus of nearly a year, Katesgrove’s Namaste Kitchen was my discovery of the year. Not quite a pub, not quite a restaurant, it offered a superb mix of Nepalese small plates and, over the months ahead, it became my go-to place (if you want to read my review, it’s here). I took my family, I took friend after friend, at one point I think I was going most weeks. When I started hosting readers’ lunches in January the following year, having the first one at Namaste Kitchen was the natural choice.
A few months later, everything changed. Namaste Kitchen’s co-owner, the affable Kamal, moved on and so did the chef. Namaste Kitchen carried on under the same name, but the menu changed to be more traditional and the prices went up: out went the dried mutton sukuti, pangra (or gizzards to you and me) and the other dishes I used to love, and in came tandoori dishes and biryani. Over the next year and a half we waited in vain for Kamal to reappear on Reading’s restaurant scene, to no avail.
Finally, in August, the announcement came: Kamal was opening a new restaurant, Namaste Momo, at the bottom of the London Road on the border between Woodley and Earley. An unfashionable location, but as the Twitter feed sprung into life and pictures began to appear of the menu I started to get flashbacks of all those old favourites: chilli chicken, paneer pakora, Kamal’s hand-made momo. And I wasn’t alone – plenty of Namaste Kitchen’s customers were excited too, clearly remembering great meals from eighteen months ago.
Sadly, I can’t review Namaste Momo – Kamal knows who I am, and we’ve stayed in touch since he left Namaste Kitchen. So you won’t ever read a full review of Namaste Momo with a rating at the bottom, and it won’t ever feature in my lists to help people make up their minds when choosing where to eat for a night out. That is a real shame for me, and an occupational hazard of letting the mask of anonymity slip. On the plus side, it does mean I can work with Namaste Momo to offer you the chance to eat there as part of this, the fourth ever ER readers’ competition.
I got in trouble last time I did a competition for writing too much about the food. It was too much like a review, people said. So on this occasion, I’ll say a little less. All the photos in this piece are my photos from a recent visit and I paid for my food because that’s what I do. The samosa chaat is probably the best I’ve had in Reading – far less gloopy than others I’ve tried, with a nice kick, free from overpowering tamarind sweetness. Unlike some other Nepalese restaurants, Namaste Momo makes its own samosas and I think that shows.
My visit also gave me the chance to reacquaint myself with some other old friends from the Namaste Kitchen menu. I have many happy memories of eating chow mein at the old premises, and it was lovely to try it again. Paneer pakora almost reached the same heights, but needed a little more crunchiness in the batter. You could almost forget that, though, when the hot cheese was teamed with a beautiful chutney, packed with herbs.
The real draw here, though, is the momo. When I arrived I could see a tray of them being made out back in the kitchen and again, unlike some other establishments, they are made on site rather than bought in frozen. Even steamed they are extraordinary, but once you caramelise them in a pan or, better still, coat them in a deep-red, addictively fiery chilli sauce you are absolutely on to a winner.
There’s also a small(ish) menu of curries if you want to go down that route but I think it’s the momo they will come to be known for – it says momo on the front of the restaurant, after all. It is emphatically a restaurant, though, in a way Namaste Kitchen wasn’t: you can’t nurse a few pints and idly make your way through a few small plates while half-watching the football the way you could at the old place.
I’ve done that thing again where I’ve written too much about the food, haven’t I? Oh well, sorry about that; you can cancel your subscription if you feel really strongly about it. Here’s a picture of the chow mein, because I may as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. Even looking at the photo I can remember the hint of sesame oil.
Anyway, on to the competition. First prize is a meal for four people, including drinks, up to a maximum value of £120. In addition, a runner-up will win a meal for two people, including drinks, up to a maximum value of £60. That’s a lot of pan-fried mutton momo. Or steamed chicken momo. Or chilli chicken. Or, for that matter, anything else. Like this lamb sekuwa, for instance.
To enter, all you have to do is this: write me 250 words on the one restaurant you wish you could pick up and drop in Reading, whether that’s a joint you fell in love with on your holidays, your favourite London restaurant or the place you always make a beeline for when visiting family or friends. Make us all burn with envy that Reading is missing out on your favourite restaurant! Email your entry to me – firstname.lastname@example.org – by 11.30am on Friday 18th October.
As always, to ensure total impartiality I don’t judge the readers’ competitions. I’m delighted to confirm that John Luther, my occasional dining companion (but far more famous for his work at South Street) has agreed to return to judge this one. All entries will be sent to John anonymously and the results will be announced in a fortnight.
As usual, the judge’s decision is final, no correspondence will be entered into and don’t even think of taking this one to the Supreme Court. Thanks again to Namaste Momo (392 London Road, if you fancy checking it out for yourself) for being so generous with the prizes and best of luck to all of you who decide to enter this one!
It is a sad but unavoidable fact that the moment I review somewhere Not In Reading, no matter how glowing the review and no matter how easy it is to get there, far fewer people click on the link and read it. So if you’re reading this, I should start by thanking you – and then I should go on to explain why this week it’s the turn of an Italian restaurant in Newbury, a five minute walk from the train station.
It’s a culmination of a few things, really. First of all, restaurants serving pasta have become a bit of a Thing in London in the last few years. It started with Padella, the no-reservation-queues-round-the-block establishment in Borough Market and their legendary cacio e pepe (I’ve never been: I don’t do queues). I did however recently have lunch at Covent Garden’s Bancone, a more recent exponent, and it was truly marvellous stuff, my rabbit and juniper ragu pretty close to anything I’d had in Bologna.
Then Mio Fiore, which has been on my to do list for some time, appeared in a national newspaper. In the course of reviewing a(nother) London pasta restaurant in the Guardian, Grace Dent mentioned in passing that she’d particularly enjoyed Mio Fiore’s spaghetti puttanesca during a Berkshire road trip (“something of which we’ll never tire”, she grandly exclaimed). Well, now: this part of the country never troubles broadsheet restaurant reviewers, so even a brief appearance like this warranted further investigation.
But the thing that clinched it was discovering that Pepe Sale, Reading’s exemplary Sardinian restaurant, was listed as for sale. The report subsequently turned out to be incorrect – apparently proprietor Toni described it as a “prank” – but at the time it threw me (and, I suspect, many other Reading diners) into a bit of an existential tailspin. How many more chances would I get to eat that stunning suckling pig? Where would I get my fix of top notch Italian food once Pepe Sale was gone? That settled it, so before too long my partner Zoë and I were on a train to Newbury to carry out what I had decided was essential research.
The first two things that struck me when I walked through Mio Fiore’s front door were that it was absolutely packed on a Tuesday evening and that there was a strong, glorious whiff of garlic (and I’m not sure they struck me in that order, either). A busy restaurant is the best kind of all, and no restaurant that smells of garlic can ever be a bad thing. It was a high-ceilinged room, almost like a barn, and they’d put in a second floor with a balcony, although I was glad we were seated on the ground floor by the windows, with a good view of the place. Everything was for utility rather than show – not often you see actual bricks in a restaurant rather than tiled bricks or wanky exposed brickwork. The wood-fired oven glowed behind the counter.
Compared to my recent horror show at Cozze, the menu at Mio Fiore exuded a quiet confidence. It felt compact – half a dozen starters, a manageable range of pasta and pizza dishes and only four other main courses. It wasn’t clear from the menu whether you could choose to have a smaller pasta dish as a starter, so we cooked up all sorts of permutations of what we might order before our waiter turned up and explained that we could indeed do that. That would have made things simpler, but for the fact that the specials board we hadn’t previously seen added further temptation and complication in the shape of another half-dozen dishes. We made inroads into a beautiful bottle of Gavi di Gavi and honed our final choices.
I’m no particular fan of Grace Dent, but I am a fan of puttanesca, so I had to try it. There’s a beautiful alchemy that happens when tomatoes, anchovies, capers and garlic combine and this dish had it in spades – sweet, salt and savoury in perfect, tantalising equilibrium, with the faintest hint of chilli to dial up the contrast. The pasta was spot on, too – just the right side of al dente, and the perfect vehicle for the sauce. The nice thing about having pasta as a starter is that it never outstays its welcome, although that was never going to happen with a dish this beautiful; I could have eaten a mountain of the stuff. Once I’d finished the spaghetti I took a spoon to the remaining sauce, not wanting to miss a mouthful.
Zoë had opted for an equally traditional dish, and if the fettuccine with ragu didn’t quite meet the lofty heights of Bologna it came creditably close. The ragu had a lovely depth to it, the pasta again was spot on and the whole thing was liberally covered with Parmesan (although I always say you can’t have too much). We didn’t know how much Mio Fiore would charge us for our starters until the bill arrived, but they’d priced both pasta dishes at six pounds ninety-five, which strikes me as impressive value.
If the meal had finished there, it would have been pretty damned good, but the main courses kept up the standard without a misstep. My chicken with Gorgonzola and wild mushrooms was from the specials menu and was another beautiful dish. Like the pasta dishes, it’s the kind of thing that features on the menus of Italian and faux-Italian restaurants across the country, but you can tell when it’s executed with skill. The sauce was silky, with enough tang from the blue cheese but not so much that it overpowered everything else going on. Crucially, the “wild mushrooms” were in fact wild: they are so often tamed somewhere between the menu and the kitchen. The rosemary roasted potatoes didn’t get a chance to shine, sitting under the chicken and smothered in the sauce, but that was hardly a bad thing.
I had some roasted vegetables with this, because I felt like I ought to at least try to eat some plants. They were served cold and didn’t go at all, but the waiter had warned me about that and I decided to press on anyway. They too were beautiful – sweet red and yellow peppers, long strips of griddled courgette and smoky aubergine with, again, a hit of garlic.
Zoë had a pizza, to make sure we tested the full range of the menu; this too was excellent. I remember eating friarelli at Papa Gee for the first time, never having heard of the stuff, but it’s more of an ever-present on pizza menus these days. None the less – bit of a theme here – it’s rarely used as well as it was by Mio Fiore. The real star of the show, though, was the salsiccia – delicious, coarse nuggets of sausagemeat, generously distributed. The crust and the dough were superb, the tomato sauce sweet and fragrant and the whole thing, really, showed how good the basics could be when you get the basics right. Zoë thought it was better than Franco Manca, better even than Lusso (Newbury’s dedicated pizza restaurant which is itself no slouch) and I was inclined to agree.
I don’t always have dessert on duty but there are two situations where I usually will: when my mind isn’t yet made up about a restaurant or when I know it’s good and I want to see if the final third of the meal can top the rest. No prizes for guessing which of the two it was here, and again the menu was restrained and unfussy: no hideous highlighter-pink profiterole Tower Of Babel to be seen here, just some of the classics – panna cotta, chocolate fondant, cheesecake, tiramisu. Zoë chose the chocolate fondant, which takes fifteen minutes to make – just enough time to watch the restaurant start to calm down, the busy tables settle up and leave, the birthday celebrations on the upper floor began to nudge down the volume. It really is a lovely place, I thought to myself, wishing I’d not waited so long to pay it a visit.
I always judge Italian restaurants on whether they have something decent to drink after dinner, so we were taking our first sips of Averna (bittersweet, on ice with a single wedge of orange) when our desserts arrived. Chocolate fondant, like all hot desserts, isn’t really to my taste but I tasted enough of Zoë’s to verify that it was faultless. The contrast in textures was absolutely as it should be, no over-gooey mess in the middle but not dried out either. It’s not a dish I ever order, but I’m glad Zoë picked it; there are few things quite as enjoyable as watching the person you love eat something they adore.
My choice, tiramisu, could have been equally prosaic. After all, who hasn’t had tiramisu countless times in one Italian restaurant or another? But again, the execution was impossible to fault. It wasn’t pretty, or fancy, but everything about it was right – soaked through with booze and coffee, with a beautiful indulgent depth to it. No corners cut, nothing artificial or superficial, just a textbook example of how things should be: six pounds exceptionally well spent.
Service throughout our meal was emblematic of the whole experience, in that the simple things were done automatically and the difficult things were made to look easy. The restaurant was packed all evening, and the waiting staff were clearly very busy, but although they worked their socks off they still exuded a certain assured serenity. Even the little things were right – letting you know they’d be with you in a second, always being chatty, never making you feel neglected or forgotten.
Maybe that’s the thing about family-run restaurants, because the waiting staff were a tight-knit, efficient bunch who were clearly a very comfortable and effective team. When my main course came, Zoë’s pizza was nowhere to be seen and our waiter, charming and suave the rest of the time, was up at the counter giving the pizza chef a good talking to to ensure we weren’t kept waiting. When he brought it over, barely a minute later, he was all smiles. This was the service all over – completely in control, the perfect link between the kitchen and the customer.
As we were settling up our waiter told us that Mio Fiore had been there for four years: we told him we came from Reading, he knew it and we had a chat about Pepe Sale. It was a good restaurant, he said, if maybe a bit dated, and I found myself unable to disagree. Our bill for two people – three courses, a bottle of wine and a couple of digestifs – came to just over a hundred pounds, not including service. It would be easy to spend less, but either way I thought this was thoroughly decent value.
I worry, reading back over this, that this might be another review of a restaurant outside Reading that many people won’t read, or that it doesn’t have quite enough pizzazz to persuade you to take that train to Newbury (not even if I mention the incredible selection of pre-prandial gins, ciders and Belgian beers at the wonderful Catherine Wheel). If so, the fault is entirely mine.
The problem, you see, is that a restaurant as consistent and unshowy as Mio Fiore does not attract superlatives. The dishes aren’t triumphs of imagination, the presentation involves no visual fireworks. You won’t be wowed by creative combinations of ingredients you’ve never seen before. Mio Fiore has no designs on being that kind of restaurant, and if that’s what you crave it isn’t the place for you. I loved Mio Fiore precisely because it eschews all those things.
I’ve eaten a lot of middling meals on duty, cooked by people who don’t know, or worse still don’t care, how food should taste. I’ve seen so many menus that read infinitely better than the food that turns up at your table, all gastronomic mouth and no trousers. I know the flavourlessness of disappointment better than I ought to, and as a result I really appreciate somewhere like Mio Fiore where everything tastes as it absolutely should – but so very rarely does.
I’d pick a restaurant like this, focusing on the classics, over all the fads and trends any day of the week. That it manages to do all that with such warmth and expertise, in a lovely welcoming room with thoroughly likeable staff, is as worthy of a fanfare as anywhere else I’ve eaten. That it all takes place in a room which happens to smell of garlic is the dusting of Parmesan on top. I recommend going, so you can see just how excellent a restaurant can be without ever showing off.
I’m always reminded of the cyclical nature of things at this time of year. My Instagram, so recently full of everybody’s envy-inducing holiday photos, has given way to my Facebook news feed, with pictures of everybody’s kids going back to school. The Reading Festival, seen by many as the last event of the summer, is over. The magnolia tree in my garden is beginning to turn, and the leaves will slowly become golden in the weeks ahead. And in town, everybody is in jeans, their shorts packed away for another year, dusting off coats they had almost forgotten they needed.
This time of year is part of cycles for me personally, too. Three years ago, I wrote my final blog post announcing that I was taking a break. And when I came back in 2017, my first review was of the Lyndhurst, a pub I’ve always loved, on the edge of the Village, the conservation area between Eldon Square and Watlington Street. Around this time last year they hosted a lunch for my readers and we packed the place out – over thirty of us, eating a set menu they’d designed for the occasion. It was a lovely afternoon; I made a lot of new friends at that lunch, some of whom have become especially dear to me.
That I’m reviewing it again, in 2019, is a sign of another of those cycles: restaurants open, close and change hands. Kris Dorward left the pub in June, just as the previous landlord had in June 2016. One of the chefs has since moved to the Fisherman’s Cottage (let’s hope the management treat him better than they did the previous team to occupy the kitchen there) and for a little while the pub sat there, empty and sad. One of its regulars even took to sitting at the tables outside in the sunshine, like a dog waiting for its owner to return.
Things looked bleak, but a new team took over at the end of July making all the right noises about continuing to serve excellent food. I was there with friends for a few drinks the night they reopened and although things were a little chaotic, it was brilliant to have the pub back (true to form, Berkshire Live reported the “news” nearly three weeks later).
I didn’t eat there that night, but I was itching to try out the new menu and so, a month after they opened, I turned up with my friend Reggie to give it a whirl. It wasn’t Reggie’s first choice (“the menu looks a bit limited”, he told me) but Caribbean restaurant Vibes was closed on Tuesday nights, so the Lyndhurst it was.
The interior suggested that the new management was aiming for evolution rather than revolution, because apart from being slightly more spartan it looked exactly as it had before. Still a long thin room with the bar down one side, still the same mixture of chairs and pews, still the same warm glow. Reggie said that it reminded him of the pub in Peaky Blinders and I, having never watched it, nodded as if I knew exactly what he was talking about. Reggie, all coiffed hair and Massimo Dutti shirts, might well fit in on the set of Peaky Blinders: I most definitely would not.
The menu offered further encouraging signs, as it had already changed from the original menu online which had underwhelmed Reggie. A bit confusing, though, as the paper menu had starters and mains while the blackboard on the wall also listed nibbles and small plates. Starters and small plates hovered around the seven pound mark, all but a couple of the mains were less than twelve pounds. Most things on the menu still fell into the bracket of pub food but there were interesting cheffy touches here and there: sauce gribiche with the asparagus, a whole spiced chicken to share, black pudding bonbons and chicken katsu burgers.
Reggie and I decided to try a bit of everything, so we made a selection from the snacks and small plates and tried to pick more straightforward and complex main courses to test the range of the kitchen. I let him pick first, as I do with all my dining companions, and he picked everything I wanted to order, as my dining companions inevitably do. “Sorry mate” he said, clearly not sorry at all.
In its previous incarnation, the Lyndhurst’s Scotch egg had been a reference dish, so it seemed like a good test to order it here. It came with less whistles and bells than its predecessor – no wooden board, no tangle of pea shoots sprinkled with salt, no brown sauce accompaniment. Instead it was served simply on a plate with a little salad, some radish and a blob of sweet sauce (the menu said mustard, Reggie thought it was more like chutney). But crucially, it was really very tasty. The yolk could have been a little less solid, ideally, but otherwise it was spot on with a great coarse texture and plenty of seasoning. Not only that, but at just under four pounds, this was almost half the price of the old Scotch egg at the Lyndhurst – genuinely priced to be a beer snack rather than a starter.
My chilli beef nachos, from the small plates section, were neither small nor served on a plate. Not that I was complaining – it was a crazily generous portion of robust tortilla chips topped with plenty of chilli, made with slow-cooked shredded beef rather than mince. I really liked the chilli; Reggie found it a little underseasoned.
The whole thing was a tad unwieldy: it was very hard to eat with your hands, not helped by plonking a gigantic lettuce leaf on top. And the promised guacamole wasn’t really guacamole but just chunks of gorgeously ripe avocado, although there’s a place for that too (there was also a terrific fresh tomato salsa in the mix). But honestly, those minor criticisms aside it was a really lovely, if messy, way to start a meal. I think after eating this I understood better why it wasn’t on the starters menu: you could easily turn up for a few drinks and just get one of these to share with your drinking buddies.
Even after the starters I was happy but well on my way to pleasantly full (Reggie, irritatingly whippet-thin in the way only twentysomethings can be, obviously had plenty in the tank). Despite being a pub the Lyndhurst was offering table service like a restaurant, and the chap looking after us was friendly and polite – if slightly lacking in confidence – and seemed genuinely pleased that we liked our food. We also had a couple of pints on the go – the Lyndhurst’s drinks selection, again, hasn’t changed drastically with the handover so it was Orchard Pig for me and Camden Hells (a favourite of mine on a hot day) for Reggie.
“I’d never come here before I read your last review, and when I did I kind of wished it was my local” he added. That made sense: technically Reggie’s local is the Castle Tap but like practically everyone in West Reading he’d rather pretend it’s the Nag’s Head. Technically, my local is the Retreat but I did feel lucky that the Lyndhurst was such a short walk from my house. Would that enthusiasm survive the main courses, I wondered?
Reggie had picked the fancier of the main courses – pork belly, pig’s cheek and black pudding bonbon, with boulangere potatoes. If that sounds like it had a lot going on it’s because it did, but it really did live up to its promise. The pork belly was beautifully done with no wobbly fat, the cheeks were tender and meaty, free from disturbingly gelatinous bits. And the black pudding bonbon, itself impressively generous, was gorgeous, earthy stuff.
To have all that and boulangere potatoes studded with sweet onion was nice enough, but to add rainbow chars and crispy cavolo nero, reminiscent of seaweed, topped it all off nicely. The only misfires were the apple sauce, which felt a bit like it had wandered in from the Sunday lunch menu, and a slight lack of jus, but the fact remained that for less than fifteen pounds this dish represented formidable value. Reggie was a fan, and from the bit he let me try I was practically an evangelist.
I had to slum it at the more pubby end of the menu, but even there I managed to find something interesting to order. My chicken katsu burger was a very respectable effort – I think it was breadcrumbed, but the coating wasn’t quite strong enough to stand up to the surprisingly punchy curry sauce. Either way, it was a lovely fillet cooked well and the whole thing was elevated by a really well done – please accept my apologies in advance for using this word, I feel every bit as dirty writing it as you do reading it – “slaw”, zingy and piquant and crunchy with carrot.
As so often with burgers these days, it was a sloppy, messy affair – the sort where every bite at one end pushes the contents out of the bun at the other until what’s left is hanging over the edge like the coach in the Italian Job. But it was very enjoyable all the same – as were the chips, which were some of the best I’ve had in a while. The menu says they’re hand-cut and I could well believe it, although if you look closely at my photo you might see one which clearly looked like a refugee from another batch entirely.
Portions were pretty generous (especially my starter), so neither of us had any room for dessert. The Lyndhurst’s dessert menu is possibly not where their strengths lie – just a brûlée, a lemon posset, a brownie and a cheesecake – so I’m not sure I was missing out quite so much. Our dinner – two courses and a pint each – came to forty-six pounds not including tip, which I thought was excellent value.
I’m always lamenting the fact that Reading doesn’t have a pub in the centre that does really good food, and for a long time the previous incarnation of the Lyndhurst filled that gap as well as anyone had. That’s why there was genuine sadness when they closed. I’m delighted to be able to report that, after a slightly shaky start, the new owners are definitely on the right lines. The menu is pretty wide, but they seem to be able to execute all of it. It’s well-judged, with a good range of options for sharing, snacking or eating a full meal. They’ve already started to change the launch menu, which shows that they care about their food and are looking to improve.
I think they’ll only grow in confidence (and the service needs to, ever so slightly) but it will be fascinating to see where the new management takes the place. One thing that really struck me about the previous owners was how little they did on social media to promote the pub and the food: fingers crossed the current team take that more seriously. But for now, let’s just be grateful that the Lyndhurst is back, and trying the right things.
The following day I did a bit of Googling and found that Vibes, the other candidate for this week’s review, closed permanently in August. There’s that cycle for you again: if you don’t use it, don’t complain if further down the line you lose it. One to bear in mind in the months ahead, when places like the Lyndhurst are going to need customers more than ever.
I’ve been reading a lot of other restaurant bloggers recently, and it’s made me think. These are proper restaurant reviewers in big cities, and they use impressive words like “bosky” and “friable” – both of which, I’m ashamed to say, I had to look up in a dictionary.
The other thing these reviewers do, which I’ve never done, is write in the present tense e.g. I bite into the burger. It has the deep flavour of well-tended cow and so on. This is a very striking way to write about food and it makes you feel like you’re there, in the moment, experiencing that bite with them.
I, on the other hand, tend to write in the past tense e.g. the burger was a bit bland. Recounting an event which has already happened makes it feel like you’re telling someone a story down the pub, but perhaps it lacks that immediacy. Maybe it puts a gap between the writer and the reader.
So does the traditional structure of a restaurant review. Here is why I’m reviewing this place, my reviews tend to begin, followed by this is what the room is like and here’s what I ordered and what it tasted like followed, as night follows day, by here’s what the service was like, here’s how much it cost and, last but not least, this is my verdict. Add the rating, the address and the website, repeat until dead. Job’s a good’un.
One thing those other restaurant reviewers and I agree on is that the best reviews to write are the rave reviews, followed by the hatchet jobs. The ones everybody dreads are the middling, the mediocre, the it was dull enough eating it, but heavens, now I have to write about it ones.
So, I ought to start by explaining that Cozze, the Italian restaurant on the roundabout at the bottom of the Caversham Road, has been on my to do list for literally years, and that whenever I ask people on Facebook where they’d like me to go next someone always pipes up and suggests it.
I should add that it started in Woodley before adding a second branch in central Reading with a third one just opened in Pangbourne. I should then say something like “well, a successful independent chain is a very unusual thing in Reading so I owed it to myself to see what all the fuss was about so I went there one night with my partner Zoë” and there you go, the scene is set.
But really, and maybe this will build some of the immediacy my reviews might sometimes lack, what I really want to tell you is how exceptionally bored I was by having dinner at Cozze.
Take the spaghetti carbonara I had as my starter. A good carbonara should be golden, the sauce should hug the pasta, it should be resplendent with egg, it should be salty and sinful and fun. The pancetta (although ideally it might even be guanciale) should be almost crispy and add its own whack of salt to proceedings. It shouldn’t be like this.
It shouldn’t be a pasty albino of a thing, swimming in cream with scant evidence that it’s ever seen an egg. You shouldn’t be dredging through the lake of liquid once you’ve finished, picking out highlighter-pink cubes of bouncy bacon and wondering why you bothered. It shouldn’t be worse than eating at Carluccio’s, for goodness’ sake. It shouldn’t feel like a dish cooked by people who don’t especially care for food or know how it’s meant to taste.
The sad thing is that the room itself is quite nice – a big airy space with nice furniture and vaguely Kandinsky-esque paintings on the wall. And the staff were lovely – really bright and friendly as they brought middling plate after middling plate to our table. We were the only people there when we arrived, although by the end three other tables were occupied. One big group appeared to be regulars, which makes me wonder if they’ve ever considered trying other restaurants. They might like them.
Zoë thinks I am being a little grumpy, and to be fair she ordered better than I did. But her stuffed mushrooms, laid out as if by a serial killer, might have been pleasant enough but I wasn’t sure they were elevated from anything you could pick up and do yourself in M&S. The ones at Papa Gee, in the heart of Caversham, at least have blue cheese in them to give some salt and tang and flavour: no such luck here. The dip seemed to be mayo. Who dips stuffed mushrooms in mayo? Why not just stick a bottle of salad cream on the table and have done with it?
God, and the desserts. White chocolate covered profiteroles filled with Prosecco and raspberry ice cream sounded like they might at least be interesting, but turned out to be one of the ickiest things I’ve had in a long time. They were filled not with ice cream but with cream that tasted of nothing much. The white chocolate was sickly enough, but the Barbie-pink raspberry gloop on top, and the scoop of raspberry ripple ice cream in which almost no raspberry was evident, completed the spectacle. Again, Zoë’s dessert, a honeycomb cheesecake, was a little better but still every other ingredient was shouted down by sugar.
I’d had my doubts about Cozze before going, which mainly came down to looking at the menu several times over the years. Part of that came from my suspicion that they’d taken a kitchen sink approach – would an Italian restaurant really offer chicken wings, moules frites, baby back ribs and peri-peri chicken? Would they really do four different burgers, accompanied by the wording all our burgers some (sic) with fries and are fully cooked? I mean, I know what they were trying to say, but even so.
But more than that, my real problem with the menu was just how many things on it were also on the menu at Prezzo (ironically Cozze has seen Prezzo off in Woodley: that branch has now closed). If you’re a chain, why set yourself up to be a rival to a place like Prezzo? Should that be the place you set your sights on? Again, it says you’re interested in making money, but not particularly interested in food. But if anything, Prezzo’s menu reflects some recentish food trends – there’s burrata, there’s ‘nduja and so on. Cozze’s menu, with none of that to be seen, feels like an Italian chain menu from about ten years ago.
My main was better, although it still wasn’t anywhere near the best pizza in Reading. It had goats cheese (not enough), leeks, four bits of semi-dried tomatoes and three bits of artichoke. Like most of the other things at Cozze it wasn’t actively unpleasant, just objectionably unexceptional. I drizzled some chilli oil over it to try and make it taste of something. The chilli oil appeared to have very little chilli in it – crap as a condiment, perfect as an analogy.
For completeness’ sake, before you or I drop off, I should also tell you about Zoë’s main course which was pollo prosciutto with pomodoro sauce and baby roast potatoes. Pepe Sale does a beautiful pollo prosciutto – a fillet wrapped in Parma ham and stuffed with cheese which you have with seasonal vegetables. It’s perfect: a few ingredients treated simply and with respect. For some reason, they choose not to drown it in chopped tomatoes and serve it in a bowl hotter than the sun like some kind of glorified ready meal. For some reason, Cozze does choose to do exactly that.
I had a mouthful and wasn’t clamouring for more. My advice, if you ever accidentally order this dish, is to eat it doing your very best to pretend you’re instead eating at Pepe Sale. But if your imagination is that good, you could probably enjoy eating pretty much anything. I used to have a brother in law with nasal polyps so bad he couldn’t taste anything: he’d probably quite like Cozze.
Don’t worry. We’re nearly there and our suffering is almost at an end. It just remains for me to tell you that we shared a five hundred millilitre carafe of Italian Sauvignon blanc which was slightly sweet and perfectly decent and that our meal came to fifty-six pounds, not including tip. That includes a discount because Cozze usually has offers through their website, so if you’re considering eating at Cozze you should definitely make use of them. Although if you’re considering eating at Cozze at this moment, I’ve probably failed as a restaurant reviewer.
You might feel that they caught me on a bad day. You might feel they’re unfortunate to be reviewed the week after I’ve written about eating in Bologna, having truly phenomenal pizza, pasta and gelato. And it’s not that Cozze is bad, to be fair. Nobody died, I wasn’t poisoned, nothing they do is inedible.
It’s just that if Cozze is that answer then “where can we go for dinner that nobody could possibly have any strong opinions about whatsoever?” is the question. The poverty of ambition is the thing I find a terrible shame. Although maybe that’s not fair either: Cozze aspires to mediocrity and, in that respect at least, it has to be considered a towering success. There are worse places to eat, of course. But there will always, easily, be somewhere far, far better.
Bologna is the city where I ran out of superlatives.
I’m used to picking city breaks on food and drink alone, doing plenty of research, booking restaurants and planning exactly where I’ll eat. I love traipsing round a cathedral, I like a gallery and I don’t mind a museum, but the food’s the thing I really make a pilgrimage for. And many of the cities still on my to do list are famous for their gastronomy – Lyon, for example, or San Sebastián. Bologna is in the same league, I think, and is a truly extraordinary place to eat and drink.
It’s beautiful, too. Miles of porticoes run throughout the city – some grand, some tatty but all offering shade when it’s sunny and shelter when it’s raining. The colour palette is like nowhere else I’ve visited – all reds, burnt oranges and dusky pinks. It’s a ridiculously photogenic place, but not picture-perfect and not remotely interested in being so pristine. It has far too much incredible life to it for that.
Bologna has many nicknames – la rossa, the red one, because of its red rooftops and communist history. La dotta, the learned one, because of its university, older even than Oxford. But more importantly, it’s called la grassa, the fat one, because it’s widely thought to be the gastronomic capital of Italy.
It’s in Emilia Romagna, the province of northern Italy responsible for Parma ham, Parmesan and balsamic vinegar. Bologna is also the place for pasta, whether that’s tagliatelle (never spaghetti) with rich ragu or tortellini in broth. And then there’s the local cheese, the mortadella, the wine, the growing craft beer scene; I’ve never been anywhere where food felt quite so front and centre in daily life, or anywhere where it was quite so easy to eat well.
It’s a real challenge to describe it without lurching into hyperbole, but what else can you do when you’ve eaten so many of your desert island dishes on one holiday? The best gelato, the best pasta, the best coffee… you come home feeling a little like you’ve gone from Technicolor to monochrome.
It’s not – at the moment, at least – a huge tourist destination: Rome, Florence and Venice are all far more fêted. But I loved it so much when I went last year that I went again this summer, and I loved it so much when I went this summer that I’m going again before the end of the year. If you’re considering a trip, I hope this list gives you some inspiration. Of course, once I come back from my next visit I might just have to add to it.
Where to eat and drink
1. Drogheria Della Rosa
I visited Drogheria Della Rosa on both my visits to Bologna and loved it both times although, on paper, it’s the kind of restaurant that could give buttoned-up Brits a panic attack. It’s a converted pharmacy, although generally you sit outside in the street enjoying the food, the buzz and the people-watching. The proprietor still stops at your table and asks what you want and – this is the bit which I found unnerving the first time – there’s no printed menu, wine list or prices anywhere to be seen.
Anyway, you soon get past that and everything I had there was terrific, from the ubiquitous tagliatelle al ragu to a veal dish my friend Al and I still rhapsodise over two years later (it wasn’t on offer on my second visit, to my eternal disappointment).
When you ask for a dessert wine they just bring over a bottle of Marsala and some glasses and leave you to it, another experience which is more fun the second time when you have a good idea how much the bill is going to be. But perhaps the best thing about Drogheria Della Rosa was the dessert – one of the simplest and cleanest I’ve ever eaten, a shallow bowl of pure, fresh mascarpone topped with top-quality grated chocolate. I daydream about that from time to time. I was having far too much fun to remember the size of the bill either time, but with a bottle of wine I don’t think it was far north of fifty Euros.
Drogheria Della Rosa, Via Cartoleria 10
2. Osteria Bottega
Osteria Bottega was probably the best of the many old-school restaurants I’ve tried in Bologna. I felt less likely to run into a group of Americans at an adjacent table (and they only had one person on the wait staff who spoke English) but if anything that made the whole thing more of a treat. It’s a nice, tasteful, reasonably basic room but the food is what stayed with me about my visit.
I picked this restaurant after a writeup on Andy Hayler’s blog. He’s an idiosyncratic reviewer – I always feel like he’s auditing rather than reviewing a restaurant – but he indisputably knows his onions and Osteria Bottega didn’t let me down. We started with a plate of aged culatello which could have matched any jamon iberico in Spain, served with slices of apple (a revelation) and plenty of Parmesan, because Parmesan is in plentiful supply in Bologna.
They just leave the bowl at your table, in fact – so unlike the stinginess here in Blighty – which enables you to finally work out the answer to the question how much Parmesan is too much Parmesan? (not that I ever reached a conclusive view on that).
It comes in especially handy with the tagliatelle al ragu, which was the best I had in Bologna – so intensely savoury, so rich, over so soon. Hayler says it’s a mixture of beef and pork leg that’s been cooked over an open fire, and he is the kind of man to check that sort of thing. Either way, I thought it was magnificent. The rest of the meal, for me, was marred by veal envy – my dining companion committed the unpardonable sin of ordering better than I did – but my rabbit porchetta was still a beautiful thing, even if it didn’t quite live up to the promise of the juxtaposition of those two words.
Osteria Bottega, Via Santa Caterina 51
3. La Verace
Another tip from Andy Hayler, La Verace is right on the edge of the city centre, not far from MAMbo, the modern art gallery. The gallery, like so many modern art galleries I’ve experienced on my trips to European cities, puts the f into art and isn’t necessarily worth visiting. La Verace, on the other hand, is well worth a detour.
I came for the pizza and it truly was one of the finest I’ve had, with a perfect crust and a rich, almost fragrant tomato sauce. But actually, all the other dishes were even better – especially shedloads of tender squid served on a deep, earthy chickpea purée. I still occasionally go on – to anybody who will listen – about the oven roasted potatoes, salty and fatty with a slightly medicinal tinge of rosemary: one of the cheapest things I ate in Bologna and easily one of the most memorable.
Next time I’ll keep away from the pizzas and explore the rest of the menu: I suspect there are more works of art in it than you’ll find round the corner.
La Verace, Via Cairoli 10
4. Scacco Matto
It’s very difficult to have a bad meal in Bologna (I never managed it), and the majority of restaurants I ate in were brilliant and accomplished but resolutely unshowy. There’s an awful lot to be said for that, but if you do want to try something more cheffy and ambitious Scacco Matto is the place for you.
I went there after watching Rick Stein, on his Long Weekends programme, eating Scacco Matto’s plin, ravioli filled with sweet onion and Parmesan, glossy with butter and served with thick slices of wild mushroom and hazelnuts. I’ve ordered it on both my visits to Scacco Matto and it’s a death row dream of a dish, a dish with a half-life where you eventually keep eating half of what’s left, hoping you can somehow cheat the laws of the universe and make it last forever.
But other dishes are available, and they’re every bit as good. On my last visit I ate a single squid, scattered with peas and broad beans, resting on a thick slab of pork, in the same breathless rapture. I finished off with two beautifully rare tranches of tuna with ginger and mange tout, a dish with roots a long way from Emilia Romagna but somehow completely at home here.
When my friends and I all ordered the plin the waiter smiled and said “Rick Stein?” and I thought how nice it was to take someone else’s restaurant advice for a change. It’s hard to imagine a visit to Bologna where I didn’t eat at this restaurant – and if you want a pre or post-dinner drink Birra Cerqua, one of Bologna’s preeminent craft beer brewpubs, is two minutes down the road.
Scacco Matto, Via Brocaindosso 63
5. Sette Tavoli
I heard lots of recommendations for Sette Tavoli but, shamefully, the main reason I chose it was that it could be booked online (not all Bologna restaurants have embraced the Internet). It gets its name from only having seven tables inside, although on the day I ate there it was hot as balls (during mini heatwave at the end of June) so we were out on the portico, trying to look unruffled, John Lewis portable fans whirring away like billy-o.
It has an attractive, short a la carte menu or you can pick one of two tasting menus centred around meat or fish. We went for the latter, accompanied with a very cold and crisp local white wine, and it was a properly lovely meal.
I enjoyed the fish encrusted in pistachio, served with a sweet and crunchy fennel salad, a clever bit of cooking on a dish delivered with minimum fuss or fannying about. But my absolute favourite was smoked salmon with ultra-caramelised onions and spuma di patate – the texture of creme fraiche but the distilled taste of spud at its most elemental. Nothing especially Italian about it, but who cares? It was nothing short of a magic trick, and yet another dish (Bologna is packed with them) that we talked about for days.
Sette Tavoli, Via Cartoleria 15/2
One of the best things in Bologna is the Quadrilatero, the grid of streets just off Piazza Maggiore full of stalls selling pasta, cheese, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. And, for me, one of the best things in the Quadrilatero is Simoni – if you get there early enough at lunchtime you can grab one of the tables outside, order a bottle of Lambrusco (the local wine which is red, chilled and therefore nothing like any Lambrusco you might have experienced at home) and make inroads into a menu full of cheese, charcuterie and bread. It truly is a happy place for me.
On a previous visit my friends and I demolished a selection of charcuterie and cheese – salami, Parma ham, a bunch of delicious cheeses whose names escape me and mortadella, the signature meat of Bologna which you have to try even if, like me, you have a vague suspicion of unreally-pink mystery meat. But on my most recent trip it was all about bread – first, squares of focaccia filled with beautiful scquacquerone, a gooey fresh local cheese a bit like the shapeless heart of burrata.
Even better was the porchetta panino, a beautiful thing stuffed with salty, fatty pork and studded with caperberries adding just enough acidity for contrast. Panini in the U.K. are just the way our awful coffee chains flog you a gooey, unremarkable toasted sandwich: having the real thing in Bologna was a true revelation. Either way, make sure you keep room for the tasting selection of Parmesan so you can try it aged for 18, 24 and 36 months: if nothing else, it will help you decide which kind to buy and cram into your suitcase on the way home.
Simoni, Via Pescherie Vecchie, 3/b
7. Cremeria Cavour
Pretty much any of the gelato you can eat in Bologna will ruin most U.K. ice cream for you for life (although I still have a soft spot for Jude’s salted caramel – available at Fidget & Bob and Nirvana Spa, fact fans). I made it a personal crusade to try as many places as I could: I loved Sorbetti Castiglione, just up the road from my Airbnb which did a fantastic gianduja gelato. I adored Il Gelatauro, where I managed to eat gelato and then follow it up with an affogato which was both enormous and itself 90% gelato – either a career best or a new low, depending on how you feel about gluttony.
But my favourite was the chi-chi Cremeria Cavour (which, confusingly, had changed its name since my first visit last year). Every single flavour I had was beautiful, from pistachio to fior di panna – pure cream, unadultered with vanilla or anything else. On my last visit I developed a serious addiction to their rum and chocolate gelato, one which can only be managed with further visits to Bologna. Sitting on a bench in Piazza Cavour eating gelato would, in most cities, be the standout gastronomic experience of a holiday but in Bologna, it has to settle for being first among equals.
Cremeria Cavour, Piazza Cavour 1D
You’re not going to struggle for good coffee in Bologna, wherever you go. My weakness – which I was introduced to by my friend Al – is caffè al ginseng, which is hot, sweet, milky, comes out of a machine and would probably offend coffee purists everywhere.
Personally I often think the most fun you can have with a purist comes from irritating them. But if you are in the mood to try a more rarified coffee, head to Aroma. The interior is dark and, dare I say it, a tad dated, but the staff are fantastic and friendly, speak brilliant English and serve possibly the best coffee I’ve ever tasted. My friend Al sipped his espresso, gave a sigh which was 50% whispered prayer and 50% happy finish, and immediately ordered a latte so he could check whether it was as good. It was.
Aroma, Via Porta Nova 12/b
9. Camera A Sud
Pubs are wonderful things, but there is something about a properly great bar that is truly transcendental. I’m always on the lookout for them on the continent and some of my favourites – Ghent’s Gitane, Granada’s Potemkin, Porto’s Café Candelabro – are, to my mind, reason enough to visit their parent cities.
A truly great bar is a little scruffy and bohemian but never dirty. It has a hangdog charm that you simply can’t manufacture or fake, and we aficionados can always sniff out a fake (we get lots of practice in Britain, which so rarely gets bars right). It feels like a place you could nurse a coffee in the morning, enjoy lunch, drink before dinner or booze late into the night.
In Bologna, Camera A Sud was that bar. It was perfect for aperitivi, whether that was a perfectly cold beer, a glass of white or countless day-glo Aperol spritzes. The inside was scuzzy but uncalculated but sitting outside, as the shadows lengthened and people wandered past, was the perfect place to be.
Not only that, but the food was brilliant. Not a lot of cooking was involved, but the selection of salumi and mortadella wasn’t a million of miles from the quality at Simoni. The bruschetta – mozzarella and anchovy elevated by the genius addition of orange zest – was the kind of bar snack only a bar in Bologna would think of: I sent a picture to my friend Al and he recreated it at home the very next day.
The area around Camera A Sud is full of street art and intimidatingly fashionable, dishevelled people, beautifully boho and worth a wander, either with a camera or just with your eyes wide open. Just round the corner is another terrific-looking place called Caffè Rubik: I’ve made a note of it and I’ll try it next time, just in case it’s even closer to the Platonic ideal of the perfect bar.
Camera A Sud, Via Valdonica 5
10. Astral Beers
Both times I’ve visited Bologna I have been in the company of craft beer enthusiasts: Bologna is also at the centre of Italy’s burgeoning craft beer scene, and so there are plenty of places to try. More, in truth, than I have the stomach for, so I slightly lost interest in sitting on the pavement outside a place called Beer For Bunnies surrounded by the bearded and tattooed drinking something expensive and agricultural when I’d rather have been enjoying a really good glass of wine.
That said, some places were more my kind of thing. Birra Cerqua, which I mentioned earlier, was very nice indeed and Birra Baladin (which has a bar inside the Mercato Di Mezzo) makes some beautiful and unusual stuff. But my favourite was Astral Beers, not far from the famous towers, which felt a bit more grown up, a little less chin-strokingly post-rock and a lot more interested in being a bar where everybody could find something to enjoy.
The staff at Astral Beers have more than enough enthusiasm for their stuff to bridge any language gap, and I really liked all of the Italian beers I had there, whether they were more conventional Pilsners or some very striking sours. It has some tables outside but the inside feels more grown up than many craft beer places I’ve been to – which, like craft coffee places, can sometimes feel like a temple to chipboard. They also did some lovely, affordable and in some cases biodynamic wines.
I never ate there, but the dishes I watched arriving at other tables looked good enough to give me pre-dinner food envy. Happily, it only ever lasted as long as my walk to the next restaurant.
Astral Beers, Via Castiglione 13/B
11. Osteria Del Sole
Confusingly, Osteria Del Sole isn’t really an osteria and doesn’t do any food. What it is, quite magnificently, is Bologna’s most venerable bar and dangerously close to an Italian take on an old man pub. The wine by the glass is perfectly pleasant – it’s a good place to try Pignoletto, the local sparkling white – and the Menebrea by the bottle is also serviceable, but really the atmosphere is the thing here. There’s also a little courtyard, although it lacks the battered grandeur of the interior.
Every time I’ve been, confusingly, many of the tables have been reserved (something which would never catch on in a British pub), but you can usually find some space. It has to be done, if just the once, and makes for a nice early afternoon pit stop before returning to the bustle, sights and sounds of the Quadrilatero.
Osteria Del Sole, Vicolo Ranocchi 1/D
12. Mercato di Mezzo and Mercato delle Erbe
A bit of a cheat lumping both these markets in the same entry, but both are absolutely worth a visit.
Mercato di Mezzo, in the Quadrilatero, is more like Market Halls Victoria (or what Reading’s own Market House desperately wishes it was), an indoor market with food vendors along both sides and communal tables in the middle. Everything I’ve eaten from there has been brilliant, whether it’s pasta accompanied with a local beer from Baladin, a slice of pizza grabbed on the run to munch on the way through the streets or a caffè al ginseng and a croissant packed with indulgent pistachio cream first thing in the morning. Visit, if only to see how far Reading has to go to even attempt to recapture the buzz of such a place done well.
By contrast, the Mercato delle Erbe – on the splendidly named Via Ugo Bassi – has a conventional market at its heart selling all sorts of wonderful fruit, vegetables fish and what have you (I picked up some fantastic truffle sauce on my first visit) and then, around the edges, there are lots of little restaurants with their own seating. I enjoyed a fantastic range of bruschetta on one visit, on another I went to Polpette E Crescentine, which does exactly what it says on the tin.
There are also some lovely bars where you can sit with a pre-dinner spritz, wondering whether snaffling a square of pizza would ruin your appetite and, just as importantly, whether it would be worth it (on balance, probably not, but you usually work that out the hard way).
Finally, it wouldn’t be a holiday without a souvenir. I always make sure I head to Formaggeria Barbieri in the Mercato delle Erbe, where they are wonderfully helpful and will vacuum-pack you massive pieces of Parmesan for your flight home. I managed to bring back two and a half kilos on my last trip (twenty-four month aged for everyday grating and forty month aged for best) and they even gave me a snazzy red tote bag which I prize far more than I probably should.
Mercato di Mezzo, Via Clavature 12 Mercato delle Erbe, Via Ugo Bassi 25