Restaurant review: Papa Gee

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
0118 9483000

https://www.papagee.co.uk

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Restaurant review: Cotto, Bristol

I know, I know, another Bristol review. I’m sorry. This is meant to be Edible Reading, you might say. Why doesn’t he stay in his lane? Or perhaps you’re one of the If you like Bristol so much why don’t you live there brigade. I do understand, and I know a fair few people take a week off reading the blog when they see the name of the new post and realise it has a place name in the title, the name of Somewhere Outside Reading. I get it.

But the problem is that, when you write about food – or even if you don’t – you want to try the very best stuff. And when eating out is a passion you plan your holidays around it, your weekends around it. I’m away in a couple of weeks and the process is always the same: book the flights, book the hotel and then book the restaurants. And then you have to go through the usual dance: how many meals out is too many? Is two in a day overkill? Maybe your holidays aren’t like that, in which case I simultaneously envy you and think that, on some level at least, you’re missing out. You probably go to more galleries and museums than I do on a city break, to be fair.

And the thing about the very best stuff is that you – by which I mean I – actively want to write about it. Take the violet aubergine caponata I had as part of my lunch at Cotto, a restaurant in Bristol’s old city, a stone’s throw from the food market. I’ve had caponata before, but nothing that matched this. Everything was in high definition – the aubergine sweet, sharp and comforting all at once, the basil perfumed, the olive oil grassy and the pine nuts a joyous surprise in every forkful. Each flavour was somehow separated out and distinct, the gastronomic equivalent of listening to a well produced record on very expensive headphones. You might not give a monkey’s, but how could I not review that?

I’m probably getting ahead of myself by starting there, but given that I’m not usually a Bristol reviewer and you’re most likely not a Bristol reader I can probably skip the preamble with all the namedropping. The bit that talks about Cotto being the latest in a group of Bristol restaurants, the Bianchis Group, and mentions all the others (spoiler alert: I’ve not yet been to any of them). And I could tell you the name of the chef – I know some reviewers really start dribbling at that point – but it didn’t mean anything to me and it probably wouldn’t to you either.

I mean, why should you care? I’d heard good things, so I thought I’d check it out for lunch while I was spending a few days in Bristol and I’m writing it up even though it probably won’t interest many of you. I’m selfless like that.

It was a lovely dining room. From the photos I’ve seen it looks lively in the evenings, with a certain convivial glow. But stopping there on a Friday lunchtime, the room less than half-full, it had a wonderful serenity – all muted terra cotta walls, framed cartoons and Robin Day polyprop chairs (they’ve come up in the world since my generation perched on them in double maths back in the Eighties, that’s for certain). 

It bills itself as a wine bar and kitchen, and you could sit up at the bar looking out on St Stephen’s Street with a glass and a small plate, I suppose, although given how good the menu looked that would feel a bit like having half a wank. It was all tempting, to the extent where the difficult part wasn’t choosing what to eat but what to forego; on another day I’d have wound up telling you all about the coppa and pickles, the vitello tonnato, the fermented courgette with hot honey. 

But in this parallel universe I tried that caponata, and I could hardly complain. It cost six pounds fifty, fifty pence of which went to one of the restaurant’s chosen charities. There were three dishes marked as including that contribution and one of the others was the bread and butter – four slices of decent, robust sourdough which maybe felt slightly steep at just over four pounds. It was however vital for sauce moppage (it’s a word now: I say so) so what can you do?

The bread also came in handy for our third starter, from the specials board. I read somewhere that Cotto cures its own charcuterie and makes its own sausages, and on this showing that involves some real talent. Salsiccia came in earthy, hefty pieces and although I didn’t get masses of the advertised soave and chilli, the gremolata that crowned each diabolically delicious diagonal slice made the whole thing positively sparkle. Again, eight pounds felt slightly steep for a solitary sausage – but that might be the curmudgeon in me so by all means just tune this sentence out.

Our starters finished, we sipped our drinks happy in the knowledge that we were in safe hands. Good starters will do that, building up a bank of credit most restaurants know better than to squander. And our drinks were gorgeous, too: Zoë continued her current negroni phase with a negroni sbagliato, a “broken” negroni made with Prosecco rather than gin, and I had a soft and uncomplicated Italian red about which I remember precious little. But the wine list was excellent – nearly all European, covering a good range of price points with a wide selection available by the glass.

Mains came a little quicker than I’d have chosen – about ten minutes after our empty starter plates were taken away – but were a welcome sight all the same. Gnocchi with rabbit is a combination of two of my favourite things, and what turned up in front of me more than lived up to the promise of those words on the menu. The gnocchi managed to steer clear of stodge and were the perfect vehicle for a sauce of tangled strands of rabbit and firm, almost nutty broad beans, the whole thing lifted with a spike of aniseed, from tarragon I expect. A halo of Parmesan was the icing on the cake, and eating it I got that high-definition thing again, that sense of a kitchen conducting things with aplomb so every flavour had its moment in the spotlight.

Zoë’s chicken involtini was even more a thing of wonder. I have a real soft spot for this kind of dish, but I’ve rarely had a version as good as Cotto’s – chicken wrapped in ham, everything cooked just right, in thick rounds with baby gem, the edges blackened and charred, the whole thing liberally dressed with a vibrant, racing green salsa verde. A spot of balsamic and instant sunshine from more of that olive oil completed a beautiful picture. It was unfussy but superb: as usual, Zoë had picked better than me.

Our waiter – who was absolutely brilliant throughout, incidentally, despite seemingly looking after the whole room on his own – had suggested that the chicken dish needed some carbs. And I’m thoroughly glad that he did, because the Jersey royals we’d ordered for backup were an utter delight. Burnished and bronzed, tossed in oil, garlic and oregano they would have been a knockout on their own, but when paired with a generous puddle of aioli I could have gladly eaten these all the live long day. Have a look at the picture below: if it doesn’t make you peckish you’re beyond my help.

By this point in the meal I was polishing all of my superlatives, so to speak, but my ardour was slightly dampened by the desserts. I would say that they felt like an afterthought, but they were both on the specials board so you couldn’t even say that. We had some Montbrú cheese, which our waiter told us was a goat’s cheese with a texture closer to a Comté or a Gruyère. And that’s true, and a very nice cheese it was too, but three small slices for seven quid felt stingy. This could have done with some carbs: crackers or bread, some or indeed any vehicle for getting the stuff into your gob. That was especially the case because the whole shebang was drizzled with honey which made picking it up a tricky business. And who wants to eat cheese with a knife and fork? You just end up looking like a lemon.

The chocolate truffles were a different kettle of fish. They were excellent – deep and rich and perhaps ever so slightly larger than your average truffle. They were also five pounds fifty. For two. And again, I know this probably sounds a bit like a moan but even so: I know food is getting more expensive, and I didn’t begrudge the price of most of the things we ordered at Cotto. But every now and again the pricing of a dish felt out of whack, and the desserts were where that was more noticeable. Our bill, for three courses and two drinks apiece, came to just over a hundred pounds, which included an optional ten per cent service charge, and all told we were in and out in just over an hour.

Does that matter, in the scheme of things? Well, yes and no – I’ve thought about it a lot since the meal, weighing up the pros and cons. And this is something a lot of restaurant reviewers don’t do – they’ll gush about the dishes but not think about what it was like as a meal, or talk about how much it cost (often because, in their own weasel words, “I didn’t see a bill”). And that’s where Cotto falls down ever so slightly, because despite some truly gorgeous touches and some plates which were up there with anything I’ve eaten this year the whole thing was a little too sharply priced and too briskly paced, especially for lunchtime.

Would I go again? It’s a good question, and one that was thrown into perspective when I realised, walking down St Stephen’s Street, that Cotto was literally two doors down from Marmo, the Bristol restaurant I visited last year that received my highest ever rating. If you picked Cotto up and dropped it in Reading, it would do very well, and I expect from time to time you’d find me there. But as an infrequent visitor to Bristol, it would be difficult to choose it over Marmo: in fact I had dinner at Marmo the night of this visit, and Cotto didn’t quite match it.

That’s how fortunate Bristol is: on one street you can find neighbouring restaurants, either of which would grace a town like Reading with its presence. And it’s not just St Stephen’s Street, you could experience the same phenomenon at Wapping Wharf, on Cotham Hill, in no doubt countless other parts of the city. How do the residents of Bristol not get blasé or complacent, the jammy blighters? But then there’s always someone better off than you, as my friend who lives near Swindon never tires of telling me (usually over Gurt Wings at Blue Collar Corner). Never mind: normal service will be resumed next week with a review back in the ‘Ding, of a place that went a long way towards restoring my faith. Something to look forward to, I hope.

Cotto – 7.9
29-31 St Stephen’s St, Bristol, BS1 1JX
0117 3292560

https://www.cottowinebarandkitchen.co.uk

Café review: Madoo

It’s a fact of life in hospitality that restaurants open and close all the time. There’s an inexhaustible supply of plucky new businesses ready to sign a lease and try their chances, and you can almost measure how long someone has lived in Reading by how far back they remember the history of certain sites. Do you recall when Thai Corner used to be Bistrot Vino, or when the Nando’s on Broad Street was a place called Bistro Je T’aime? You’ve probably been here since the early days of the Oracle, if not longer.

In some cases a restaurant makes such a go of it that you almost completely forget the establishments that went before. Some people have long memories, and remember Mum Mum or that pretzel joint on Market Place, but for many people I imagine it feels like it’s always been Tasty Greek Souvlaki. And although I know rationally, in the back of my mind, that there used to be a great branch of Ha! Ha! on the Kings Road – and that after that it was a Turkish place, and a tapas restaurant, and a weird kind of pub that closed on Sundays – it’s been House Of Flavours so long that it’s jarring to imagine anybody else there. It’s a bit like how, after you’ve been in a relationship with a person long enough, your previous life feels as if it belonged to somebody else.

But there are some sites where you need not only a long memory but a good one, because so many restaurants try and fail to make a go of it on the same premises. The quintessential example of this is the site of the old Warwick Arms, which has been Bali Lounge, the Biscuit & Barrel, Cardamom and King’s Kitchen and currently goes by the name of the Aila. I only reviewed the first two of those, and most of the others closed before I could get round to them.

Or take Cozze’s site on the Caversham Road, which has been Chi’s Oriental Brasserie, La Fontana, Al Tarboush, Casa Roma and Maracas, all of which eventually went pear-shaped. (Incidentally, I heard a fantastic story once that when Casa Roma decided to change to a Mexican restaurant called Maracas they did it mainly because they realised they could reuse all the letters in their sign except the O: I so hope this is true.) But can there really be a god in heaven when the TGI Friday opposite has outlasted them all?

What’s behind these high-churn sites, I wonder? Is it bad judgment, bad luck or bad juju? Are they run by enthusiastic amateurs who bite off more than they can chew, or are some sites simply cursed – by lack of footfall, of parking or of access, or by the presence of better (or better-known) alternatives nearby? Or is it just that they haven’t found their forever home – or rather, their forever homeowner – yet? All that crossed my mind last weekend as I stepped through the front door of Madoo, ready for lunch.

By the standards of titans like the Aila’s or Cozze’s site, Madoo’s is only slightly hexed. It used to be a sandwich shop called It’s A Wrap which lived up to its name by closing, and then it was the ill-fated Project Pizza (pizza may be many things, but surely it should never be a project). But it’s been Madoo for a couple of years now, and it forms a Little Italy on Duke Street with delicatessen Mama’s Way opened just next door. And it has its fans – I’ve heard lots of good things about its toasted sandwiches and it even came up in conversation with my physio this week. “I love that place, it feels like being in Italy” he said. “I started going there in lockdown because it was one of the only places in the town centre that was open.”

Inside it was a lot more hospitable than you might think from trying to peer through the tinted windows. It probably seats just over a dozen people, some of them up at a bar that runs along one wall, but it had a nice feel to it. The chevrons on the floor, pallets fixed to the ceiling and lights attached to the pallets make it feel somewhat like a zone from the Crystal Maze that didn’t make the cut, but for all that I rather liked it. One other table was occupied when I turned up just after noon, but half an hour later the place was full.

You order up at the counter but along the walls are loads of tempting bits and bobs to take home – dried pasta, a small selection of cheese, sauces, biscuits and all manner of snacks. I know a few eyebrows were raised when Mama’s Way opened next door but they seem to have put some effort into not treading on one another’s toes – Madoo has the space, and sells coffee but no booze, and its neighbour is minuscule and sells booze but no coffee. Between them they make up one of Reading’s most fascinating gastronomic micro-climates.

Madoo’s menu is a symphony of toasted sandwiches. There are a couple of salads, if you want to eschew carbs, but really it’s just about picking your fillings. Some of the sandwiches are made up and behind the counter, ready to eat, or you can pick an option from the menu, or pretty much customise it however you like. But the majority of the sandwiches are variations on a classic theme – pick your meat, pick your cheese, pick your veg or salad and off you go. Everything sounds fantastic on paper and many of the ingredients here – mortadella, speck, scamorza, gorgonzola – are far more exciting than anything you’d get in another dreary soggy sandwich from Pret. It’s affordable, too, with nothing clocking in at more than a fiver.

The other main decision you have is all about the bread. The menu suggests the sandwiches all come in ciabatta (incidentally, did you know that ciabatta is a comparatively recent invention? Created in 1982 to protect Italy from the existential threat posed by the baguette apparently, my other half tells me). And Madoo’s recent social media posts suggest you can have puccia, a flattish Puglian bread, instead. But when I ordered at the counter I was given the choice between puccia and focaccio and, out of curiosity, I picked the latter.

While I waited for it to arrive, I made inroads into my latte. I’ve had coffee from Madoo once before and it was somewhere on the borderline between nothing to write home about and actively bad, so I was hugely relieved to find that either it’s improved or they were having an off day last time. It isn’t top tier, not up there with the likes of Workhouse, C.U.P. or Compound, but it’s probably comfortably in the pack with Shed and Picnic – and tellingly, it was better than the one I had recently at Raayo.

I’d chosen toasted sandwich number one, a classic combo of prosciutto, mozzarella, tapenade and rocket and it came to the table looking the part with a nice golden sheen and telltale lines from the grill. It didn’t look hugely like any focaccia I’ve had before, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t authentic: they vary widely by region and this was a long way from the oily, dimpled foccacia most people are used to. Instead it was flatter, denser and less airy – if anything, better suited to a sandwich. It was still oily, though: enough to soak through both napkins that had been put underneath it. Why do cafés still put napkins under the sandwich or cake? It’s an eternal, nearly-unsolvable mystery that not enough philosophers have tackled over the years.

There’s an art to toasted sandwiches, that fine balance of getting everything inside hot and/or melted, all those mingling flavours cross-pollinating without ending up with a charred exterior. Based on my sandwich Madoo hasn’t quite got the hang of that yet, because although the ingredients were unquestionably good, it hadn’t had long enough under the grill for the magic to happen. The mozzarella had begun to melt but not reached full glorious elasticity, and the prosciutto – again, good quality stuff – was too close to fridge-cold at the core. But the tapenade saved the day, uniting everything with that deep, pungent saltiness. It felt like there were a few intact olives in the mix, too. 

Even with all that nit picking, it was a thoroughly enjoyable sandwich – and it reminded me of many happy lunches in the early Nineties from Parmenters, a sandwich shop in Oxford. This was back when the whole town was ciabatta crazy and you could get big pillowy sandwiches full of mozzarella, sundried tomato and pesto and eat them in quadrangles across the city (I didn’t realise, back then, that even the concept of ciabatta was barely ten years old). When I go back to Madoo, I have designs on something with scamorza, or speck, or pesto – or some arguably ill-advised combination of all three. 

Because I’m greedy, and because I wanted to try out more of Madoo’s food, I’d also ordered two mini cannoli – one with chocolate, another with pistachio. Again, they were served on their own personal napkins but that aside they were a beautiful indulgence – both with nicely brittle shells and the kind of smooth, rich filling that lingers on the tastebuds for almost long enough. I ordered the chocolate one – because I’m basic like that, and that’s just what I do – but the pistachio was equally lovely if not more so. I don’t know whether Madoo makes them or buys them in, but given that they sell them for one pound twenty each I’m not going to complain if it’s the latter.

My whole lunch came to less than a tenner – and again, it’s instructive to think how little that would buy you eating in at Pret these days. And service was excellent – kind and friendly, even to a total newcomer. I felt very much the exception in that respect: I was struck by how nearly everybody else who came into Madoo that lunchtime had clearly been there before, probably had a regular order or a favourite sandwich. Two chaps came in, talking Italian, went up to the counter, got their espressos, downed them and left. A family came in towards the end of my lunch and their son was wearing a Bari shirt. 

Every table was bright with chatter, and I possibly liked it even more because with some tables I couldn’t understand a word they were saying. It’s things like that which made me fall ever so slightly in love with Madoo and this tiny corner of Italia overseas. Because restaurants and cafés are about more than just the food, or the coffee. They’re also about the atmosphere, the little bubble they create and whether they make you want to be inside it. Madoo’s toasted sandwiches are definitely better than many of their competitors – not perfect, but not too far off it, and the ingredients they use are a cut above. But also I just loved sitting in a different part of Reading to my usual, to having a different type of coffee and sampling an entirely different flavour of people watching. 

I can absolutely see why it’s always so full. And although I may not ever become a regular there – I have too many lunch places still on my list to review, it’s rather an occupational hazard – I’m certain they will see me again. It’s great to have another option, too, because some days Reading still seems a tad thin on good candidates for a quick, light lunch. And besides, I’m reliably informed that they do arancini every Friday – so if nothing else, I’ll have to drag myself away from my regular appointment with Blue Collar one week to try them out. Maybe this spot on Duke Street has found its forever homeowner, after all.

Madoo – 7.4
10-14 Duke Street, Reading, RG1 4RU
0118 9502249

https://www.facebook.com/madooitaliandelicafe

Takeaway review: Mama’s Way

Mama’s Way, the minuscule Italian aperitivo bar and delicatessen on Duke Street, has been on my list to review since it opened earlier this year. In the summer I briefly toyed with trying to grab one of the three tall stools outside, looking out on the shell that used to be Panino and sipping an Aperol Spritz, but it never quite happened. Anyway, reviewing it as a takeaway is a far better bet. After all, it can only seat three people outside and three people inside – up at the window, provided they get on famously – and so your best chance of trying their food would be to get on Deliveroo, as I did this week.

It is a shame, because it’s a wonderful spot. There’s something very continental about a venue so tiny – wander through Bologna and you’d find loads of Aladdin’s caves like Mama’s Way, selling cheese, or pasta, or porchetta sandwiches through a hatch. And if we were in pre-Covid times I’d probably have stood at the bar, elbows at the ready, enjoying that feeling of being somewhere else. But it’s 2021, and I imagine many people wouldn’t want to experience eating in at Mama’s Way for the time being, so here I am to try the food out remotely for us all.

It is a real Aladdin’s cave, by the way – all manner of cheeses and charcuterie, biscuits and breadsticks, pandoro hanging from the ceiling in readiness for the festive season, bottles of wine on one side and an attractive array of digestifs behind the counter (they sell multiple brands of Amaro, one of my favourite drinks). They even stock chinotto, that exquisitely bitter soft drink you can’t get anywhere else. And in my limited experience of buying from Mama’s Way over the counter they have an excellent variety of Parmesan, some of it aged for as long as 72 months: it’s doubtless improved more over the last six years than I have. 

Aside from doing food to eat in, and delivery food, and acting as a deli and wine shop they also have an online store, with free delivery if you spend over £29. Confusingly, they also sell “ready meals”, which include some of the same dishes as the Deliveroo options, so if you like something you’ve had as a takeaway you can, with a little foresight, spend half as much to heat it up at home yourself. This all makes sense – at a time like now you need to have as many hustles on the go as you can – but let’s get back to the point and talk about the takeaway.

The menu is relatively streamlined, and I imagine much of it is cooked up in the kitchen somewhere behind the counter. Starters mostly consist of cheese and/or charcuterie in some configuration or other, there are a couple of “build your own” pasta and sauce combinations and, strangely, four different soups. The rest is largely lasagne and pinsa, the Roman equivalent of pizza which is traditionally oval, made with a slightly different flour and has a slightly crunchier texture. Oh, and they also have a huge selection of their wine on Deliveroo, so if you fancy a forty quid bottle of Nebbiolo with your takeaway there’s nothing to stop you living the dream.

Starters tend to hover close to the ten pound mark, the lasagne and cannelloni are closer to twelve pounds and most of the pinse are between twelve and a rather steep seventeen pounds, although in fairness there are lots of interesting ingredients and combinations in that part of the menu, including lardo honey and walnuts, or Parma ham with the splendidly named squacquerone cheese (I’ve had it: it’s fantastic). I was having a takeaway on my own on a chilly night, so I decided to cover as many bases as possible by ordering pinsa, pasta and dessert. They were doing 20% off all food, so my bill came to twenty-five pounds, not including the rider tip.

Speaking of tips to riders, my main one to the guy who delivered my food would be “don’t store a hot pizza vertically”. Honestly, it was so ridiculous that it was more funny than disappointing: I’ve had many seamless delivery experiences this year, so I’m sorry to have to bring this up, but it does strike me as basic stuff and I’m not sure I’d be doing a decent job of this review if I didn’t mention it. Other than that, it was relatively smooth – I placed my order just after seven o’clock, it was en route twenty-five minutes later and it took about seven minutes to get to the house.

The fact that, say, the pizza was lukewarm or that the chilled dessert had been put in the same carrier bag as the hot lasagne is down to the restaurant, but the fact that my pizza had somewhat drifted in transit and that some of it was stuck irretrievably to the inside of the lid of the box is, sadly, down to the driver alone. Anyway, c’est la vie: I know the traditional curse is “may you live in interesting times” but an equally powerful one would be “may you spend far more of the year than you’d personally choose to trying to describe tepid pizzas on a restaurant blog”. Take it from me.

So, the tepid pizza then: it’s a real shame, because Mama’s Way use good ingredients and it does show in the taste. I’d picked a simple ‘nduja pizza and their ‘nduja is great – savoury, acrid crimson nuggets that pack a huge amount of flavour, far more so than boring supermarket ‘nduja. On this evidence I would buy ‘nduja from Mama’s Way, but I’m not sure that, on this showing I’d order a takeaway pinsa from them again. But I could tell, from what I ate, that if it had been hot it would have been formidable. 

The tomato sauce had a genuinely gorgeous fruity depth and the base, which was far thicker than the Neopolitan pizzas that are in vogue right now, was also excellent. Slightly randomly my order had included a couple of squares of bread in a paper bag: I’m not sure why, because they didn’t go with my lasagne and they sure as hell didn’t go with my tiramisu, but as a “look what you could have won” they were another salutary reminder that the raw materials Mama’s Way is using are promising. Eventually I admitted defeat, stuck the oven on and reheated the rest of my pizza. It was lovely, but if I wanted to heat up a pizza at home I’d probably just buy one from a supermarket at half the price.

If the pizza was frustrating, the lasagne was outright bad. It looked the part when I got it out of the bag, but what my picture fails to show is just how little ragu was involved in its construction. Have a look at the picture on Mama’s Way’s website, which suggests you’ll get four sheets of pasta with a generous layer of ragu in between each one. By contrast, what I had was, I think, six or seven layers of lasagne with next to no ragu anywhere to be seen. It was an odd kind of pasta millefeuille, which sounds more like a baddie from Harry Potter than anything you might want to eat.

The best bit of a lasagne is that crispy, cheesy bit right at the top – the corners, all caramelised – but that only works if plenty of cheese has been used and there’s hot ragu underneath. This was just a stodgy wedge of pure pasta, and the burnt bits were almost impossible to saw through. I threw half of it away. The sad thing is that what very little ragu there was tasted decent, with good depth of flavour – properly made, with finely chopped carrot in the mix. But when there’s that little of it on display, the fact that it tasted decent only made matters worse.

Deliveroo described this as a “lasagne Bolognese” (and, incidentally, the picture of this dish on Deliveroo also looks like it involves plenty of ragu). But if anybody served this up in Bologna they’d probably die of shame. The margins on this dish, even with a discount, must have been astronomical.

Just to add to the contrariness, one final twist in the tale – my tiramisu was lovely. Everything was in proportion with the perfect interplay of cream and sponge, booze and coffee, exactly as it should be. But again, it was a little on the small side at five pounds – not unreasonable with twenty per cent off, but I still couldn’t help but think of the giant slab of tiramisu you’d get at Buon Appetito for not much more. I think by that stage I was relieved that something was unequivocally good, even if it wasn’t unequivocally good value.

This meal felt like such a pity, and a proper wasted opportunity. You only have to spend a few minutes inside Mama’s Way to see that they have fantastic ingredients and produce, much of it impossible to get anywhere else in town. But somewhere along the way, something has gone wrong in terms of turning that into a menu that works and makes sense – for delivery, anyway. 

If they ever get larger premises, I would rush to eat there and have one of those pinse fresh from the oven, or just enjoy some of their antipasti with a good bottle of red. With the right site, they could be Reading’s equivalent to Bristol’s cracking Bosco Pizzeria. But would I order takeaway from them again? Probably not: the memory of that brick of lasagne, 10% main course, 90% murder weapon, will cast a long shadow.

Never mind. It hasn’t diminished my enthusiasm for what they sell over the counter, or my respect for them trying to do something different and turn a profit from such a tiny spot. And I’ll be back for some of that ‘nduja, and some squacquerone (for the name alone, if nothing else), and I’m long overdue a bottle of chinotto for that matter. They also sell coppa, probably my favourite charcuterie of all time, and I can even see myself picking up some guanciale to use in my own ragu at some point. It might not be as good as theirs, but you get an awful lot more of it. 

Mama’s Way
10-14 Duke Street, Reading, RG1 4RU
0118 3273802

https://mamasway.co.uk
Order via: Deliveroo, Uber Eats

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