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
When people suggested I review Buon Appetito, an Italian restaurant down Chatham Street, right next to the Central Swimming Pool, I looked at the menu online and nearly rejected it out of hand. Nothing about it suggested authenticity; I’ve never been to Italy, but from the looks of the menu nor had anyone associated with Buon Appetito. It was a few mainstream pasta choices, some not wildly exciting pizzas and a few other bits and bobs. I wasn’t even sure whoever had put this menu together had even been to Bella Italia, for that matter.
Then I looked at the TripAdvisor reviews and wondered what I was missing. Almost without exception they were raves: not all obvious shills by people who had only ever written one review for TA, but reviews by real people who, it seemed, had something to compare it to. Other Italians need to up their game said one, among the top three pizzas I’ve ever eaten, and that includes in Rome said another. Well now! So what we had here was the restaurant equivalent of an irresistible force meeting an immovable body: which was right, my opinion based on the menu or all those TripAdvisor reviewers? I simply had to know.
The first challenge was getting anyone to show us to a table. We went through the door on a gloomy weekday night and found ourselves standing there for a good five minutes before a waiter turned up. The last time I’d eaten at this site was back when it was the sadly-departed Chi and they’ve done a good job with it. It feels bigger, lighter and airier, and nobody goes wrong with the classic combination of red gingham tablecloths and plain wooden chairs. The room through the back, where we were seated, is a pleasing square space and the art taking up the whole of the far wall, an Italian scene of an old cobbled street, opens it up nicely. We were the only people there, although a table in the corner was booked for two and had a vase sitting on it with a dozen red roses. Aw! I thought to myself, trying to overlook the rather invasive background music. It sounded like it was being played on a chewed cassette tape.
I still didn’t much fancy the menu but we took recommendations from the waiter, a young, chirpy, pleasant chap who was happy to talk us through what was good. All the pizzas were excellent, he said, and so was the grilled goat’s cheese starter, the bruschetta and the tagliatelle. That made the choice a lot easier, so we ordered half a bottle of red wine and waited to see what was in store.
This led to the first oddness of the evening – I was expecting a half bottle, 375ml, of a named wine with a label on it. Instead we got a plain unlabelled full size bottle, wearing a red napkin like a little neckerchief, half-full of some unnamed liquid. All a bit weird, although it tasted nice enough (if a little tannic). The music got a little more frantic – all Italian, with more noodling and guitar shredding than I associate with Italian music. Personally I’d have preferred Boys Boys Boys by Sabrina, but you can’t have everything.
We shared the two recommended starters. The grilled goat’s cheese was adequate but probably no better than that. The cheese itself was nice and earthy, and it came with some caramelised red onion (I couldn’t shift the suspicion that this was out of a jar) and some balsamic glaze on two slices of baguette. Pretty tasty, although more about assembly than actual cooking.
Much the same was true of the bruschetta. It was a small oval of pizza bread (cooked in the pizza oven, the waiter had proudly told us) topped with halved cherry tomatoes, some red onion and drizzled with pesto. The pesto had the thick texture and taste that again suggested it had come out of a jar, or maybe a tub. The tomatoes were sweet and not unpleasant. The pizza bread was not the right choice for this, because there was nothing for the juices from the tomato to seep into, although that’s probably fair enough because nothing had been done to the tomatoes, so there were no juices anyway.
The waiter asked if we’d liked the starters as he took them away, and we said they were nice. Ten per cent fibbing, I’d say. By this time the happy couple had turned up and were sitting at their assigned table, which was slightly higher up than ours, as if on a dais. They ordered champagne and chatted away to each other in a language I couldn’t make out, and took photos of each other and got the waiter to take pictures of them both. It was quite heartwarming to see, although already I was starting to wonder if they shouldn’t have picked a slightly better restaurant.
It was around the time my pizza arrived that I began to wonder whether Buon Appetito was the most misleadingly-named Reading establishment since Great Expectations. I have literally nothing positive to say about it. I have a friend who sometimes complains about pizzas saying they have too much cheese on them, and in the past I’ve always responded to her saying “don’t be ridiculous, how can a pizza have too much cheese on it?” Well it turns out that it can, because my salami pizza was practically nothing but cheese. Covered completely in cheese, a big molten sheet of the stuff, with no bubble or crisp or texture.
The base might once have been half decent (though I wouldn’t bet on it) but with so much grease it was sodden and grotty. The salami and pepperoni felt cheap and nasty. The menu claimed there was a tomato sauce hiding under there, but some exploratory work scraping off the gloopy layer of cheap mozzarella revealed nothing of the kind. You know when you get a pizza and you wind up leaving the crust so you can eat the good stuff in the middle? This was a grotesque parody of that, in that I found myself eating along the perimeter because it was the only bit with any crunch or contrast, the only bit that felt like it might have been pizza at all.
I have a friend who makes the most amazing pizzas. He makes his own sourdough base, he has a pizza steel, he makes his own tomato sauce, he buys in ‘nduja and friarelli, the whole shebang. Even his vegan pizzas, covered in capers, are remarkable. His pizzas – and apologies for being indelicate – piss all over Buon Appetito’s. But to put this into perspective, this pizza wasn’t just not as good as that. It wasn’t as good as Papa Gee’s. It wasn’t as good as Pizza Express’, or Zero Degrees’. It wasn’t as good as Prezzo’s or Strada’s. It wasn’t as good as Marks and Spencer’s, and I wouldn’t have put money on it being as good as Iceland’s. It was a waste of calories, and I didn’t even come close to finishing it.
The other main, spinach pasta with prawns, was also disappointing. The pasta was overcooked, squidgy and claggy (not for the first time, I wondered if the chef was Italian: al dente it wasn’t) and the sauce just tasted of tomato with none of the olive oil, garlic and lemon juice it allegedly contained. It needed something (anything!) to lift it, and without that it just tasted like student cooking. Put it this way, if I’d made it at home I still would have been disappointed. A shame really, because the prawns were rather nice. I picked them off by sniping with my fork, and I left an awful lot of the rest.
We told the waiter we were really full as he took the main courses away, and that they had been nice. I’m pretty sure by this stage we were eighty per cent fibbing. We didn’t ask to look at the dessert menu and dinner for two came to thirty-seven pounds, not including tip. Our waiter seemed like a lovely chap but it was amazing how often he wasn’t around given that he only had four customers to look after. Getting the bill and paying it were both more difficult than they ought to be, and empty (or half-full) plates were sitting around in front of us for longer than they should have been.
I’m baffled by Buon Appetito’s high ratings on TripAdvisor. I wouldn’t want to suggest foul play, but I do wonder how many of these reviewers are regulars or have connections to the restaurant. Who knows? Perhaps they had an off night, perhaps I went with insurmountable preconceptions, but I don’t think so. I think I ate food which had little to do with Italy prepared by a kitchen that probably hadn’t been there. I think there were some jars involved, and some disappointing ingredients. I think Reading has many better Italian restaurants and, most damningly of all, I think that includes a number of chains; when you can eat something better on the Oracle, you really have a problem. As we got up to leave I looked again at the lovebirds, only to find them both tapping away on their phones. I fear they had about as enjoyable an evening as I did.
Buon Appetito – 5.3 146-148 Chatham Street, RG1 7HT
Well, summer’s well and truly over. You can speculate about the exact time of death – when the kids went back to school, when festive toot started appearing in the shops (prosecco flavoured crisps, M&S? Really?), that awful moment when you realised the central heating needed to go on – but those are details. The formal funeral happens tomorrow night when the clocks go back, and that’s that: it’s gone until next year and now we all need to come to terms with wearing extra layers, fishing the gloves out of the chest of drawers, deciding who’s getting what this Christmas and wondering whether this is the year you stop bothering with sending cards.
I’ve found it especially difficult because I’m not long back from holiday. So it seems like only yesterday that I was sitting outside until midnight, eating grilled meats and salad, drinking that first glass of rosé as soon after midday as socially acceptable and reading novels by the pool. To return to a nip in the air felt especially cruel. And it’s not just me – I bumped into a colleague this week who’s just back from a holiday in Dubai, thirty-three degrees every day without fail, and I couldn’t help feeling even her tan looked a tad jaundiced. “It’s not my winter coat I’ve got on” she told me, “it’s my autumn coat” (in denial, I suspect – it looked like a winter coat to me).
So this week I’ve been trying to find the consolations of autumn. I’m not talking about seasonal eating – I should care about that more than I do, but ultimately despite knowing all the reasons I shouldn’t buy Peruvian asparagus I still reckon it’s better than nothing – but the move into autumn does allow you to enjoy food that, a few months ago, would have been unthinkable. Slow-cooked stews and casseroles, steaming bowls of soup, big piles of mash and golden-domed pies. And the drinks, too; I know that Pimm’s is a wonderful thing but the months ahead mean we can glug red wine, or port, or mulled wine (proper stuff, not that shortcut in a bottle).
That’s what led me to Waltham St. Lawrence on a weekday night, because I’d heard good things about The Bell. Someone suggested I review it with a certain trepidation, because they didn’t want the secret to get out – and that’s a good enough incentive for me. So I made the short drive down the A4, turning right just past Hare Hatch, and parking in the village I got out of the car to be greeted by the beautiful aroma of woodsmoke.
It’s a lovely place. The pub is right opposite the church – as it should be in a picture perfect English village, if only to give people two different routes to enlightenment – and it’s beautifully, charmingly ramshackle (much as you would be if you’d been standing for seven hundred years). Inside it’s all beams and dark wood, panelling, horse brasses and open fires. There are a couple of rooms, all very basic and unshowy, although I now see having looked at the website that they also have a snug and what looks like a slightly smarter dining room; I’m glad I didn’t end up sitting in that.
I was a little bit in love before I even sat down, but it developed into a full-on crush when I read the menu. I looked at one pub during the week, deciding whether to add it to my list of places to review, before realising with horror that it offered twenty-three different main courses; The Bell is nothing like that, with a small but perfectly-formed menu of five bar snacks, four starters, five mains and five desserts. I couldn’t see a single thing I didn’t fancy eating – pork pie, rarebit, Brixham mussels, venison, trout with lentils. It was a different menu to the one on their website, and I had no doubt that if I went back in a couple of months it would be a different menu again. But for now, it felt like a menu designed to make you happy to see the back of summer.
Pigeon and pork terrine was, if not perfection, close enough that I couldn’t see anything to fault. The terrine itself was a dense slab of rich, gamey meat, beautifully earthy and coarse, no jelly or bounce to it. But that wasn’t all, because there was also soft pickled beetroot, all sweetness and no sharpness, perfect with the terrine. And the bread was magnificent – thick sliced, toasted and buttered (or quite possibly buttered and then toasted, it had a golden glow and the texture of butter that had melted under a grill), it almost had a spongey, crumpetty texture. Three simple things, superb on their own, equally terrific combined. All that for six pounds fifty, and worth the trip on its own.
The thick, rich cep and blue oyster mushroom soup was an exercise in simplicity: the mushrooms, a hint of cream and a touch of seasoning was all I could detect in the bowl. There was more of that bread on the side, untoasted this time but also generously buttered. I found it strange that the butter wasn’t on the side, and if I’m being really critical I’d perhaps have liked a few herbs to bring out the flavour of the soup more, but those are both minor details. The portion was generous (how I struggled!) and made me want to go out and forage straight after. Well, straight after a nap, perhaps.
Mains were sensibly paced after that – ironic, as the starters had been so good that, for once, I found myself ever so slightly impatient. It’s almost worth putting the clocks back just so you can eat venison again so I was delighted to see loin of fallow deer on the menu. The meat itself, again, was well-nigh perfect – beautifully seared, still pink inside, five thick discs of autumnal wonder. If the rest of the dish didn’t quite match that, it was perhaps because the bar had been set so high – the kale was well-cooked, steering the right course between the twin perils of mushy and crunchy, but it wasn’t the most exciting thing to serve with the venison.
The real disappointment was the macaroni cheese, an oddly solid cuboid of the stuff which reminded me of the top of a pastitsio. It wasn’t quite cheesy enough, or salty enough, and under a fork it just crumbled into individual macaroni. It was a noble effort, but I think I’d sooner have had something a bit gloopier and more sinful, or even just a potato dauphinoise. Last of all, the thing the dish missed most – the roasting juices had been reduced to almost nothing, like a culinary Black Friday, and the whole thing needed some kind of sauce. If I sound critical it’s just because the dish was very good, when I knew how close it came to being unforgettable.
It’s rare that there’s a scrap to order the vegetarian main course (normally it’s quite the opposite, in fact) but that’s exactly what happened at The Bell. Big pillowy potato gnocchi came with a stunning kale and almond pesto, strewn with extra leaves of kale like the best cabbage in the world (I know kale is bloody everywhere right now, but not kale like this). On top was a decent sized circle of caramelised goats cheese, grilled to just bubbling and perfect for setting off the richness of the potato. You could say this is starch and goats cheese, like unimaginative risottos in pubs across Berkshire, but this was so much more than that: clever, creative and damned delicious, and it really didn’t need any meat. It illustrated deftly that with a bit of effort and an imaginative chef it’s possible to eat delicious vegetarian food; it’s just a shame that this is such a rare accolade. I scraped every last morsel out of the bowl.
Sometimes, when a meal is iffy, I order dessert to give the restaurant a chance to rescue matters. On this occasion I ordered dessert because I wanted to see if they were as good as the rest. And again, the menu was note-perfect – crumbles and puddings, hot desserts with ice cream quickly melting on them. But unfortunately, on this occasion, the desserts slightly took the shine off things. I picked the sticky toffee pudding because it came with creme fraiche ice cream, an unusual touch. Sadly it was more like a toffee cake than a steamed sponge pudding – dry and a bit chewy – and there was nowhere near enough toffee sauce to rescue it. The ice cream, to be fair, was truly delicious; thick and creamy with an intriguing slightly sour note – but that, too, wasn’t enough to save it. I left some, and I felt sad that I didn’t feel sad about that.
I was in two minds about whether to have the cheeseboard, and when I went up to the bar I asked which cheeses were on offer. “Barkham Blue is one”, said the man behind the bar, “I’ll just check with the kitchen what the other one is.” Off he scuttled, and the man next to me said “Barkham Blue’s all you need anyway.” He was right, of course, and you got a good wedge of it, soft and salty, blue without being overpowering. The other cheese – and I quite admire them for only offering two – was Wigmore, also local, gorgeously mushroomy but still nice and firm.
So far so good, and you could say it’s impossible to muck this kind of thing up, but the kitchen did have a go. The chutney was lovely, and went well with both, but the “house crackers” were a bit surreal. There was a long thin flatbread, a bit like ciappe de liguria, but the texture wasn’t right – it wasn’t crispy or crunchy, and felt stale. Odder still were the other crackers, which were more like biscuits – thin, treacly biscuits, like Hobnobs without the oats. They were sweet: sweet with burnt sugar, and although that sort of went with the Barkham Blue it didn’t go with the Barkham Blue as well as my favourite accompaniment, more Barkham Blue. I finished them in the same way I might finish a duff magazine article.
If I haven’t mentioned service that’s because there wasn’t that much of it. You order at the bar and there’s minimal interaction when they bring the food to your table. That’s honestly no criticism, and everybody was lovely and welcoming and genuinely interested in whether we liked the food, but it does mean there isn’t much to say. There’s more to say about the wine. The Corbieres (less than a fiver a glass) was robust, punchy and went brilliantly with the terrine, the dessert wine was nice if not particularly memorable and not quite cold enough for me. The port I had with the cheese – a rich, complex Krohn LBV – was over far, far too quickly. All in all, dinner came to seventy pounds, not including tip. When I think of the price of some of the things I ate – that stunning terrine for six pounds fifty, the gnocchi for a tenner – it’s hard not to conclude that the people of Waltham St Lawrence are very lucky indeed.
Would I go back? In a heartbeat. And if this review sounds critical, it’s only because the best of this meal was right up there with the best food I’ve eaten this year, and that means you judge everything else a little more harshly. But let’s put this in perspective – if you picked this pub up and dropped it in the centre of Reading (perhaps on top of TGI Friday, or Cosmo: somewhere nobody would miss) it would be difficult to keep me away. So go, even if it means the secret gets out: as it is, perhaps I’ll hibernate there in a seat by the fire, growing fat and sleepy on rarebit and red wine, finding it increasingly hard to remember that I ever used to get excited about sunshine and salad.
The Bell – 8.2 The Street, Waltham St Lawrence, RG10 0JJ
Long before George Clooney and his tuxedo wafted into Berkshire the original famous George – Cole, of course – was ensconced in Stoke Row, enjoying his twilight years in a lovely almost-in-Berkshire village with its very own Michelin recommended pub, the Crooked Billet (itself famous for catering the first of Kate Winslet’s weddings). And you can keep your Clooneys and Winslets: I bet if you’d happened to bump into George Cole in the pub you’d have had a terrific evening.
It seemed fitting to go to the Crooked Billet for the ER second anniversary review, as a mark of respect and all that, but it wasn’t to be. Even if I hadn’t got lost on the way (just once, I promise, but it could easily have been more) it still felt like too much of an expedition, too far off the beaten single-track with no passing places, not to mention the fact that it didn’t have any tables available when we arrived. Even restaurant reviewers sometimes don’t realise that they’ll need to book. On a Tuesday night. Miles away from civilisation.
Deciding where to go instead involved much head-scratching, especially as the beautiful villages out that way are usually sited in areas of outstandingly poor mobile reception. Instead we drove to Henley (getting lost another time) and drifted through town wondering where we could eat before everywhere shut up shop for the night. So Villa Marina was the second choice this week, although it nicely echoes Pepe Sale (the first restaurant I ever reviewed), also an independent Italian restaurant with a touch of old school style.
The restaurant was reasonably busy for a Tuesday night if not packed out, and it had the sort of warm prosperous glow that will draw you in after an hour of fruitless driving around the Chilterns (but I was hungry, so in truth a Wimpy might have had the same effect). The main dining room, an L shaped affair, was classically smart with crisp white tablecloths and cleverly done lighting: every table had a spot light on it, a nice touch which meant it managed the trick of being intimately lit but bright enough to see the food. The smartness extended to the clientele – all the men in the restaurant, without exception, were wearing collars. I can’t vouch for the redness of the trousers, but you wouldn’t have bet against it.
The menu was classic Italian with few surprises but quite a lot to tempt. I was impressed by its compactness: only a couple of pasta options (in their rightful place in the starters section and little or no encouragement to “go large” for a main) and no pizza. It’s didn’t look like a menu that was trying to be all things to all people, and that gave me confidence. We made our decisions – rather difficult ones, as it happened – while eating soft brown rolls spread with sundried tomato paste and salty, powerful tapenade.
The first starter was one of the specials that night; avocado with prawns and crab. It was very generous – a whole avocado filled with plenty of prawns and crab in a pretty standard dressing a la Marie Rose. There were little signs of finesse here and there (someone had spent time cutting red and yellow peppers into very, very small dice) and the big wedges of tomato were surprisingly tasty which hinted at decent ingredients. And yet, even though I should have loved it, I just liked it. Perhaps the blame is mine: it’s the kind of dish I order frequently – Dolce Vita does a similar version with smoked salmon – so maybe I should have been more adventurous. Either way, it was nicely done but not exciting.
The other dish was more successful, if also slightly restrained. Orechiette with prawns in a tomato sauce was quite a lovely little thing and, if anything, that overstates how much pasta was involved and understates how many prawns there were. The prawns were beauties, too – six big fat firm fresh specimens with just enough sweetness. The sauce was earthy and savoury, also with a touch of fish (perhaps there was some stock involved). Orechiette is one of my favourite pasta shapes, just right to trap sauce without being a faff to eat as conchiglie can be, and it worked perfectly. A little wilted rocket, some sweet cherry tomatoes and intense sundried tomatoes rounded things out nicely. I would have liked the pesto advertised on the menu, but mainly out of fear of missing out: I can’t say it would have improved it.
The mains followed far more quickly than I’d have liked. Monkfish with tarragon and brandy cream sauce was a delight: three decent sized pieces of monkfish in a deceptively light sauce with hints of tarragon (I always find tarragon a bit coconutty, although I suspect this is some form of culinary synaesthesia unique to me). This was under sixteen pounds, which I thought was pretty good value: most restaurants would charge more and/or serve a portion so small as to need a microscope (I still remember the weird little nuggets of cotton-wool I was served at River Spice: that was a monkfish waiting to be defrocked).
Saltimbocca was good but didn’t quite hit the heights – the veal itself was superb, delicate and tender and the parma ham was good quality stuff. But there just wasn’t enough sage which meant it didn’t have the earthy punch that it needed, and the sauce was a bit too light, thin and subtle. Like much of the food it was a little too well-behaved when what I really wanted were a few more sharp edges. I wonder which came first – the crisp décor and the well-dressed clientele or the impeccable, slightly safe food?
You pay extra for vegetables. We got a bowl of sautéed potatoes (salty with a hint of rosemary) and another of steamed, buttered mange tout, carrots and sugar snap peas, along with two of the tiniest florets of broccoli I have ever seen. The menu says that they are three pounds fifty but neglects to mention that this is per person, and that felt a bit cheeky when you don’t have any choice but to order it (the single lettuce leaf that comes with the monkfish won’t count as vegetables in anyone’s book). Perhaps the mains weren’t quite as good value as I’d thought.
That said, the extras were good – the potatoes were beautifully crisp (deep fried rather than done in a pan, I’d guess) and the vegetables, with just enough crunch and taste, were perfect with what sauce there was. But still, three pounds fifty per person stung a bit when the bill arrived. Three pounds was much better spent on the accompanying zucchini fritti we ordered, because these were fabulous – super light, wonderfully crispy, coated (I think) in a little semolina flour. An undignified fight broke out for the last few little scraps: I won.
Another sign of how old-school Villa Marina was came when it was time to choose dessert. Nothing as modish as a menu here, instead the dessert trolley was wheeled round to our table and we got to review the selection. Dessert trollies also feel like a dying breed (I’m not sure any Reading restaurants have one, since Casa Roma closed) and I’m never sure how I feel about them. On the one hand, it’s nice to have a clear idea what your dessert will look like, on the other I quite like a hot pudding and a trolley pretty much rules that out. I was tempted by the tiramisu but went for the chocolate cake, essentially a layer of mousse on top of a sponge base. Again, it was a solid but unspectacular choice, sweet without being synthetic but certainly not overflowing with complexity or cocoa solids.
If I went back I’d have the tiramisu, but it’s an if not a when and there are a few reasons for that. One is the service, which was very much Jekyll and Hyde. The waiters were friendly and suave, smiling and looking after their customers. Even the slips and mistakes were overflowing with charm in a rather crumpled, eminently forgivable way. But the waitresses seemed to have attended the Rosa Klebb Finishing School. The young lady who introduced the dessert trolley had a way of rattling off the list of options that was so abrupt and unsmiling that it reminded me of a prison camp guard. Similarly, there was an older lady who stalked through the room with an expression so dour that I was slightly scared to engage with her. If the men were old school, the women were borstal.
Aside from the service, the other problem was the pace of everything – we’d finished three courses and been rushed out of the room in little over an hour, and that always puts me right off a place. Part of that I suppose is down to the dessert trolley and having your third course dished up right in front of you but even so, leisurely it wasn’t. The total bill, including a 12.5% “optional” service charge was eighty-five pounds. That was for two and a half courses and one glass of wine each (the recommended wines by the glass, a chianti and a chardonnay, were both nice enough to merit a mention but neither made me devastated that I couldn’t have more).
The size of the bill was a nasty surprise: adding the service charge slightly ruined it for me because it made the total look worse than it was (and, left to my own devices, I highly doubt I would have tipped that much). Quite aside from the stealth charged vegetables the price of the special starter – nearly eleven quid – also made my eyes water, ever so slightly. Perhaps if the whole affair had taken a couple of hours I wouldn’t have minded so much, but I did keep thinking about other ways that I could have spent the same amount of money. Nobody wants to have that uppermost in their mind when leaving a restaurant.
If you were opening a restaurant in Reading today, you wouldn’t open Villa Marina. That kind of high-end, slightly starched Italian restaurant, although not dying out per se, hasn’t been seen in Reading for a very long time (perhaps Topo Gigio, long closed on the top floor of King’s Walk, was the closest equivalent). I quite enjoyed my visit there, although it did feel partly like an evening out and partly the gastronomic equivalent of time travel. No shame in that, but it did make me value Reading’s restaurants just that little bit more, from the slightly naff marble tables at Pepe Sale to the no-frills room at Papa Gee, looking out onto the Caversham Road rather than the Thames. For that matter, it also made me appreciate how warm and reliable the service at Dolce Vita is, compared to the partially defrosted equivalent in Villa Marina. It all felt a bit Henley, and if there was a blog called Edible Henley I imagine they’d rave about this place. But we do things slightly differently in Reading, I’m very pleased to say.