Restaurant review: Zero Degrees

There is a parallel universe in which this week’s review is of ThaiGrrr!, the Thai place in Queens Walk whose takeaway I so enjoyed earlier in the year. I’d had a tip-off that the place was almost deserted early in the evening, and so I fully intended to pay it a visit and write it up properly. I’d like to live in that parallel universe. But in that parallel universe I didn’t walk into it and think “what in Christ’s name is that smell?” 

And it wasn’t just me – Zoë looked at me and said “this place smells like our old cat’s litter tray”. We waited a minute and the stench – no other word would do – did not abate. And it didn’t feel like an odour to which one could, or would want to, acclimatise. I bumped into the person who’d suggested ThaiGrr! the following day at Blue Collar and told him of our experience. “That’s such a shame, it’s never smelled like that when I’ve gone there” he said. Maybe they were having problems with their drains: I imagine at some point I’ll go back and give it another try. A couple of tables were occupied, possibly by people who hadn’t yet realised that they had Covid.

There’s another parallel universe where, having passed on ThaiGrrr!, we walked home and ordered a takeaway for me to review this week. I’d rather like to live in that parallel universe too, but I’m afraid on the way back we walked past Zero Degrees and Zoë, not unreasonably, said “that place has been on your list to re-review for some time”. And looking in the window it was practically deserted. That made it a safe place to review but, with hindsight, I should have taken the hint; when a restaurant that’s been trading for nearly fifteen years is dead on a school night, there’s probably a reason for that.

Zero Degrees probably needs no introduction by now, but I’ve often thought it so far ahead of its time that it wasn’t a trendsetter, more a lucky guess. Craft beer and pizza have both exploded in recent times, and yet in 2007 when Zero Degrees opened, a combination of microbrewery and pizza joint, it was relatively without fanfare. I visited it on duty in 2013, my second ever review, and it’s fair to say that I wasn’t impressed. “It should be marvellous, but it isn’t”, I said. In addition, and re-reading this I wonder if my trip there this week was via some kind of wormhole in time, I said “in a big open restaurant with only four occupied tables, good service should be easier than this”. Anyway, that’s enough foreshadowing.

It is a big, handsome space, you know – with genuine, not fake, exposed brickwork, plenty of room and a nice view out on to Gun Street. We sat close to the window and far away from the only two occupied tables, both of them hugging the wall. “Just imagine if someone like Clay’s had this site” I said to Zoë. By the end of the meal – sorry, more foreshadowing – that felt like yet another parallel universe preferable to this one. 

Back in 2013 the menu had felt huge and unwieldy – too big to execute well – and little had changed eight years later. Some of the abominations on the starters and pizza section had been removed, while others (like the pizza with “Mexican sausage” or the one with crispy duck, hoisin sauce and crispy tortillas) remained. In a concession to the food trends of the last few years, burrata and ‘nduja were visible in several places. 

But the menu still felt like it was throwing everything at the wall, exposed brickwork and all, and seeing what stuck: a plethora of pizzas, five types of mussels, vegetarian and vegan food lumped in with the salads like an afterthought and plenty of pasta and risotto dishes. Overkill. Maybe if they had fewer items on the menu they would have had more time for proofreading and wouldn’t be offering customers “faltbreads” or “Ceasar salad”.

Anyway, we ordered a couple of beers while looking at the menu, and this is where the trouble began. Because, despite only having two other occupied tables in the whole restaurant, our beers just didn’t arrive. And the person we’d ordered them with disappeared. He materialised about fifteen minutes later, with no real sense of purpose, and so Zoë managed to get his attention and said we were still waiting for some drinks. He indicated that he’d heard this and promptly vanished again. 

Another quarter of an hour passed, by which point I was starting to wonder whether the other two tables had been trying to settle their bills since mid-afternoon. Zoë took the unusual step of getting up and searching for the waiter to track him down and ask where our drinks were. When I reviewed Zero Degrees in 2013 I described the wait staff as “omni-absent”: some things haven’t changed.

Personally, I’d have taken this as an opportunity to cancel the beers, escape into the night and have that takeaway I was hoping for, but I was overruled. So over half an hour after we asked for a couple of beers, when they still hadn’t arrived and against my better judgment, Zoë told the waiter we were ready to order food. We had to explain the dishes to him a couple of times, as if he’d never heard of them before.

“I don’t understand why their wait staff aren’t trained to just hop behind the bar and pull a pint” said Zoë. Me neither. And worst of all, from that point onwards it really did look like our food might come out before our drinks, but the beers just pipped them to the post. Our waiter brought them about a minute before the starters, and had thoughtfully upgraded Zoë’s from a half to a pint. She was having one of their specials, a black lager, which was described as “meh”. “It’s pretty tasteless”, she added. 

I’d chosen a Radler, having enjoyed one enormously in Malaga earlier in the month, but if I’d had my eyes closed I honestly could have mistaken it for a San Pellegrino garnished with a measly slice of lemon: there was that little to it. By this point both the other tables had managed to pay up and skedaddle, leaving us literally the only customers there. Had they shot us a look of pity on the way out, or was that just my imagination?

I wanted the food to be good, and I did try to approach it with an open mind, but I’m afraid it was downhill all the way from there. Bad things are supposed to come in threes, but you got four arancini on a plate, pointlessly drizzled with balsamic glaze, presumably to try and add some – any – flavour. The inside was a pappy mulch, with none of the advertised pea and spinach and it was hard to even make out individual grains of rice. They felt to me like something you might choose not to buy in Iceland.

Worse – because, it turned out, that was possible – was the ‘nduja. I’m used to small quantities of deep crimson, ultra-potent ‘nduja, very much the mighty atom of Italian food. I’m not used to it coming in industrial quantities, dense and fridge-cold, in a ramekin, with a leaden, fatty texture, like rillette cut with chilli powder. It was woeful, and it came served with triangles of pizza bread (garlic bread according to the menu: the menu is fibbing). The bread wasn’t unpleasant but by the time you had applied a wodge of frigid red bullshit to it, what you were left with was a claggy horror of lukewarm bread and something claiming to be ‘nduja which showed no signs of ever, ever melting. I left a lot of this.

Finally, the legendary “faltbread”, which was meant to feature mozzarella, gorgonzola and truffle oil. It only had the slightest whiff of truffle, which itself was only detectable thanks to the almost total absence of blue cheese. So a small shit pizza, then, for just under seven pounds – the price, coincidentally, of a not-small, not-shit pizza from Franco Manca.

As with the meal itself, I’m keen to bring this review to an end as quickly as possible and not prolong anybody’s suffering. So the dish I’d chosen as a main course could be described as a not-small, still-shit pizza. I’d unwisely chosen “carne asada”, which involved rump steak, smoked cheese and a basil and coriander pesto; if you look at that description and think that sounds awful then congratulations, because you’re light years ahead of me. But awful it was.

The steak was in the form of leathery slabs, any give comprehensively cooked out of them. I was hoping in vain for some marination, praying that the beef would be thinly sliced, pink in the middle and maybe strewn over the top at the end rather than cooked through. More fool me. The pesto managed not to taste of coriander or basil: instead it felt like munching on a manky hedgerow.

The mozzarella was as much of a non-smoker as I was and the other attempts to add some interest, a crude salsa of tomatoes, red onion and avocado, didn’t work. Putting cold stuff on top of a pizza, as with the ‘nduja, just made everything lukewarm, and the avocado started to go brown not long after this was set down in front of me.This cost fifteen pounds: you can get an infinitely better pizza at Buon Appetito for less.

Zoë had chosen a dish she said was a banker at Zero Degrees, something called lime and tequila chicken tagliatelle which was, gastronomically at least, of no fixed abode. And although it was better than my pizza it still wasn’t great, the pasta overcooked and clumpy with no bite. I didn’t detect any tequila but then again, given how hard it seemed to get booze out of Zero Degrees I wasn’t exactly surprised. Like the pizza it was studded with acrid, tastebud-destroying slices of chilli, and like the pizza it was about as Italian as the Dolmio puppets. The chicken was in distinctly uniform catering pack-sized mini fillets: the first one I tried was decent, the second had a slightly musty taste, as if it had been reheated.

We didn’t finish our mains, and although the second waiter who took our plates away was better than the first, largely by virtue of actually turning up, he didn’t probe as to whether we’d enjoyed our meals. By this point my only real concerns were leaving as soon as possible, opening up whatever chocolate I had at home and getting back in time for the Bake Off final on Channel 4+1. Our bill for two, including a 10% service charge I was too fatigued to knock off, came to sixty-two pounds: the final insult. 

On the way home I annoyed Zoë greatly by pointing to restaurants on the Oracle Riverside and saying “we could have had a better meal here… or here… or here”. The only place I didn’t include in that analysis was TGI Friday. As we passed the Lyndhurst, Christmas lights on and warm glow coming from the windows, I couldn’t help myself.

“Just imagine what sixty-two pounds could buy you at the Lyndie.” 

“Oh for fuck’s sake, shut up” came the understandable response.

The funniest thing, though, happened as we were leaving the restaurant. We walked through the place to leave through the exit on Bridge Street, and the bar was full. Properly full. Every single table had people at it, drinking and chatting, and it turned out that the joke was well and truly on us: Zero Degrees had plenty of staff, they simply didn’t have any of them working in the restaurant that night. Perhaps Zero Degrees has just given up on its food. Having tasted it, that makes two of us.

Zero Degrees – 4.9
9 Bridge Street, Reading, RG1 2LR
0118 9597959

https://www.zerodegrees.co.uk/restaurants/reading/
Order via: Deliveroo

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

Cozze

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.

Cozze – 6.3
93-97 Caversham Road, RG1 8AN
0118 9591459

https://www.cozzerestaurants.co.uk/

Tuscany Pizzeria

Very sadly, Tuscany closed in May 2019. I’ve left the review up for posterity.

I don’t know how involved a review this will be; it’s hard to complicate a restaurant as simple as Tuscany Pizzeria.

I first had it drawn to my attention by regular reader Eleanor back in April: a pizzeria on the Oxford Road, she said, adding that it was “a choose your own toppings place I think”. I made a mental note to put it on my list and then a couple of months later Eleanor went there and Tweeted the kind of pictures that can’t help but make you hungry – huge pizzas with irregular bubbled crusts, plenty of cheese and all the toppings a person could hope for, the whole thing strewn with rocket. One of the pictures showed the front of the restaurant, with a blackboard on an easel outside saying that a twelve inch pizza was seven pounds, a fourteen inch pizza a tenner.

Surely it couldn’t be quite that straightforward, I thought, as I ambled down the Oxford Road in the sunshine with my very good friend Zoë, fresh from having enjoyed a sharp sour beer in the sunshine of the Nag’s Head, still Reading’s finest beer pub by some distance. But actually, when we arrived it did look just as no-frills as the pictures I’d seen had suggested: one table out the front, the word “TUSCAN” in block capitals above the big window, in a style which had probably aimed for rustic but had to settle for makeshift. The decal taking up much of that window promised “Gourmet Delicious Pizza Top Quality Italian Style”. Hmm, I thought.

Inside, the room had deep red walls with stuff on them best described as Italy by numbers: a picture of some Parma ham here, a drawing of the Leaning Tower Of Pisa there. The whole place couldn’t have seated more than ten people – well, more if you took one of the window seats, but when I was there somebody had helpfully leaned their bicycle against the window counter, making that impossible (in any case a laptop was open there, with the Tuscany Facebook page prominently visible on the screen). The pizza boxes on display made it clear that not all Tuscany’s customers chose to eat in. The tables were a strange sort of multi-coloured hue that looked like something Linda Barker might have dreamt up on Changing Rooms circa 1999.

Anyway, I liked it: it was small and intimate although, with no soft furnishings and most of the tables occupied, it also happened to be astonishingly loud. Most of what I heard, I think, was Polish: the owner of Tuscany is Polish, I believe, and so were most of the customers there on the evening I went (many of the reviews on Facebook are in Polish, too). Some might have been staff, all seemed to be friends of the owners. At the table next to me the group of four seemed to be tucking into something that looked like antipasti, even though I couldn’t see anything of the kind on the menu.

Come to think of it, I couldn’t see a menu anyway, just the counter where you went up and placed your order, which basically consisted of telling the chap how big a pizza you wanted and what toppings you wanted on it. Behind him, you could make out the place where he rolled out the dough and topped the pizza before sticking it in the oven (I didn’t spot whether there was a wood fired oven, but I suspected not). Zoë and I took it in turns to go up and place our orders and sat back down with a can of aranciata apiece: no alcohol licence here, although again, I think I might have spotted one of the chaps at a neighbouring table with a can of beer bought from one of the nearby shops. Again, I felt like I was in a restaurant where I just didn’t know the rules, or the rules differed depending on who you were, and I didn’t entirely enjoy that.

The toppings, incidentally, were a pretty wide range. The owner talked us through them – or the ones on display, anyway – at the counter . Most were reliably standard stuff: peppers, mushrooms, onion, olives, pepperoni, parma ham and so on. The only slight hints of the exotic were some artichoke hearts and friarielli, which is sometimes described as broccoli but is closer to turnip tops, a pizza topping I’d never heard of until I visited Papa Gee but which now seems to be everywhere. I noted, with disappointment, that I couldn’t see any anchovies or capers.

Tuscany’s Facebook page says that all of their ingredients come from Italy. I couldn’t judge that, and I certainly didn’t check any travel documents, but the olive oil was by Filippo Berio (whose Wikipedia page suggests they aren’t quite as Italian as you might think). Anyway, I didn’t care if the pizza wasn’t entirely Italian, here on the Oxford Road being served by a chap from Poland. I wouldn’t have cared if the artichokes were Spanish or the ham Albanian for that matter, provided the pizza was delicious. I didn’t vote to stay in the EU only to quibble about nonsense like that.

While we waited, I saw a pizza carried to one of the other tables and I found myself wishing it had been mine. It looked every bit as good as the pictures I’d looked at months before, with the added advantage of being both three dimensional and edible. But I also saw another dish arrive at another table, what looked like chicken with little strips of baked pizza dough. The chef had been cooking the chicken in a pan when I went up to choose the toppings for my pizza, and I wondered at the time what the dish was given that it wasn’t on the menu (and, of course, given that there was no menu for it not to be on) but I was too timid to ask. Soon after that our pizzas were ready and in turn we were asked whether we wanted rocket and parmesan on them. This was a nice touch, as was the fact that the parmesan was freshly grated onto the pizza before it was cut into slices and brought to the table (the only real element of table service at Tuscany).

Zoë had a twelve inch pizza and I, rather greedily as it turned out, had a fourteen inch pizza. If I was trying to describe the main differences I’d say there were two. First of all, the twelve inch pizza is put on a massive wooden board, cut into slices and then dished up onto a plate barely big enough to contain it. The fourteen inch pizza is just brought to your table on the massive wooden board. The second main difference is that the fourteen inch pizza is actually too big for most right-minded folk to finish, and that includes me. “I knew to just order a twelve inch,” said Zoë sensibly, “because I knew that was the size of an LP and that felt quite big enough.” Trust her to slip in a reference to music and be in the right, I thought.

The base was very good – properly thin, although the edges were more brittle and crispy than charred and bubbled. Not quite on a level with, say, Franco Manca but still pretty decent. What couldn’t be denied, though, was that Franco Manca looked properly stingy compared to this lot. Mine had sundried tomatoes, pitted black olives, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, parma ham and pancetta and although none of the ingredients could be described as exceptional (I’d have liked the olives, for instance, to be the wrinkly, salty kind that I truly love) the sum of the parts was still very good indeed. I drizzled basil oil on one half, garlic oil on the other and ate until I was full. Then I ate some more, then I reluctantly stopped.

Before that, I traded a piece with Zoë and apart from having – an unusual experience, this – envy that her portion was a little smaller than mine, it meant I got to enjoy hers, with lovely sweet shreds of red onion, pepperoni and mozzarella. Her pizza was basically mine without the airs and graces, a more robust meat feast you could say, and none the worse for it. “This is really good” she said between mouthfuls and, as so often, I found her rather difficult to disagree with.

As we were finishing the last of our slices, the people at the table next to me got up to leave and I took the opportunity to ask about the off-piste dish one of them had ordered.

“It’s chicken stuffed with cheese and wrapped with Parma ham” said the man. “He cooks it specially, if you ask him. He gets the chicken in fresh from just down the road – and I know it’s fresh because if he served me frozen chicken he knows I’d kick his ass!”

He chuckled, and I laughed along, wondering if ass-kicking was ever an appropriate thing to reference in a restaurant review. On TripAdvisor, perhaps.

That’s pretty much all there is to say about our meal at Tuscany Pizzeria. Once we’d finished, I settled up at the counter where our meal came to just under twenty pounds. The other diners had cleared out by then, so the owner came over and chatted to us a bit more. Tuscany had been open three months, he said, and they stayed late so they had quite a lot of takeaway trade when people headed home from the pubs.

“My landlord laughed when I told him I wanted to open a pizza place! He said that there were lots of pizza places on the Oxford Road, and I told him this wouldn’t be that kind of pizza place.”

He went on to tell us that business was good and that all their ingredients (“except the mushrooms, spinach and onions”) did indeed come from Italy. He showed us pictures of some of the dishes we hadn’t ordered – a pizza wrap (“lots of customers like this”) and pizza ripiena, essentially a pizza sandwich, like a calzone but without the fold. He sounded so proud of what he did that I started to think that he was right: this wasn’t that kind of pizza place. It was a different beast, and all the better for it. And then something occurred to me.

“Do you have anchovies and capers?”

He smiled.

“Of course I do. Next time you come in, ask.”

Smart guy: it’s precisely at that point that I decided there would be a next time. I could easily have been intimidated or deterred by Tuscany, and by the idea that other people could order different dishes and combinations, like unlocking secret levels in an arcade game. On another night, perhaps I might have been; I can definitely see that other diners might be, and this place won’t be for everybody. If you don’t live in West Reading, you might feel there are better choices closer to home, if you’re in the centre there’s Franco Manca and if you’re privileged enough to live north of the river you have Papa Gee (or, if you like that sort of thing, Quattro – or, I suppose, the Fox And Hounds).

But all that said, something about Tuscany actively made me want to fit in, to go again and to take advantage of all the other options. To try the anchovies and capers, have the ripiena, discover the secret password that lets you order the stuffed chicken or drink a cold beer at the table, brought in from elsewhere. I could see myself playing out my evening in reverse: going back with Zoë, having a pizza and then stopping by the Nag’s on the way home to enjoy more of their superb selection. That’s me, though: I can be that kind of stubborn so-and-so, and I like a kindred spirit. Even one who bloody-mindedly sets up a rather lovely, slightly incongruous Polish pizzeria slap bang in the middle of the Oxford Road.

Tuscany Pizzeria – 7.8

399 Oxford Road, RG30 1HA
07586 095400

https://www.facebook.com/Tuscany-Pizzeria-1971426149852568/