Lusso, Newbury

I could go for weeks, months, years without eating Chinese food (the gloopy Westernised stuff anyway, rather than the eye-opening dishes served up by Memories Of Sichuan). I can take or leave a burger: they’re great when you’re in the mood, but they’d rarely be my first choice. I enjoy Indian food but, with the exception of Namaste Kitchen, I’ll eat it mainly when it’s suggested by somebody else. But one thing I do love – properly love – is a really good pizza.

It does have to be good: none of your deep pan gubbins with Day-Glo pepperoni please, and no ham and pineapple nonsense. I don’t want a stuffed crust, barbecue sauce drizzled over like chocolate sauce, or crispy duck weirdness. I want a light base, a bubbled crust, good tomato, great mozzarella and a simple, classic topping. Ideally anchovies, capers and black olives: I order it as a test the way curry fans might go for a butter chicken or a lamb bhuna, a reference dish.

I’m always on the lookout for the perfect pizza and, equally importantly, the perfect pizza restaurant. In Paris it’s Le Briciole, on the edge of the Haut Marais, dark and dissolute, frequently a tourist-free zone and perfect for a lunchtime carafe, pizza, burrata and a chance to observe Parisians being, well, exactly that. I go every time I visit the city. In Helsinki it’s Linko, in the residential district of Toolo, a tiny place with fewer than twenty seats full of people enjoying unfussy pizza and the relative novelty of grabbing a bottle of wine without having to flog a kidney first.

Closer to home, there’s Bristol’s Bosco, sleek, black and full of delicious charcuterie and cheese before the main attraction arrives. In the edgier part of the same city, there’s Flour And Ash, where you sit at what look like reclaimed pub tables and the base is spread with ox cheek ragu. Or Lewes’ sadly departed The Hearth, in a converted former greasy spoon above the bus depot, all formica tables and old music on the jukebox. Heaven, I sometimes think, would be like a long drawn-out lunch in such a place.

In Reading, for a long time it was Papa Gee or nothing (except the chains and – err – Zero Degrees), and then along came Franco Manca. Franco Manca, although it isn’t perfect, has enough going for it that you don’t much mind. It’s quick and convenient, sometimes quite good, sometimes excellent. If you sit in the right place you can’t see all the way through to Debenhams (the Reading branch of Debenhams was once voted the worst shop in the United Kingdom – by Daily Telegraph readers, no less).

Good though Papa Gee and Franco Manca are, they don’t quite match up to the ideal of that little, bustling place turning out brilliant pizzas, full of conversation and people-watching. That’s where Newbury’s Lusso comes in. It started out serving from a van in town, before graduating to permanent premises offering sourdough pizzas and gelato and not a lot else. I always warm to a restaurant that only wants to be very good at a few things, and I’d had good reports from a number of people. One was my friend Izzy, who ought to know because she works in Newbury, so I met up with her one evening to try it out for myself.

Newbury’s a lovely, quiet market town with much to recommend it. An excellent beer, wine and gin shop. A good sushi joint. A cracking butcher on the bridge, selling splendid sausages. A micro-pub and a number of snug, cosy boozers (the King Charles Tavern is a favourite of mine, especially in winter when the fire’s on).

I can confidently add the gin bar of the Catherine Wheel to that list. Izzy and I stopped there for a pre-prandial drink and discovered a gigantic selection of gins – over a hundred, I seem to recall – all at a single price that would (or should, anyway) make the Thames Lido blush. My black tomato gin was fresh and green with a sprig of thyme, Izzy had a classic bone dry gin from Berry Bros and we started to catch up on everything that had happened since I saw her last. I noticed that the Catherine Wheel did a full range of Pie Minister pies and was tempted to dally, but we headed out to Lusso only a gin to the good: pizza one, pie nil.

Lusso is in the quaintly named “Weavers Walk”, just off the main drag, facing on to a courtyard which will no doubt be lovely in summer. It’s a small, plain room with probably no more than 30 covers – tables for two and four down either edge, and tables and benches along the middle which can be put together for communal dining (a large group sat there not long after we began our meal).

Everything was tasteful – pastel but not twee – although the tiled walls and the lack of any soft furnishings meant the place got very loud. I wouldn’t have guessed that when it was just Izzy, me and a family of four at another table, but by the time we left all but one table was occupied and we’d gone beyond buzz to full-on hubbub. There was an open counter at the back which meant you could see your food being assembled and cooked: at first it was alarming to see nobody there, but before too long the chef wandered through with a tray of pizza dough, ready to be stretched and shaped for the orders that lay ahead.

I took against the menu by virtue of it being in Comic Sans – this can’t just be me – but it made all the right noises. A few nibbles, a handful of starters, a burger and some salads (presumably for those rare individuals who go to a pizza restaurant and say “not pizza again”) and the main attraction, nine pizzas and a range of toppings if you wanted to customise. Pizzas were twelve pounds, so expensive compared to the likes of Franco Manca but not far off Pizza Express. Nonetheless, font notwithstanding, it’s hard not to like a pizza menu which features nduja but doesn’t have pineapple anywhere to be seen.

We started by sharing some nibbles, which gave me my first chance to see what Lusso was good at – and, as it turned out, less good at. A dish of grilled chorizo sausages was exactly that, nothing more and nothing less. It looked like it would be horrendous – three little sausages cut into halves and dished up with a couple of cocktail sticks – and I was relieved when I tried some that the chorizo was good quality, so what looked like it would be bouncy was in fact juicy. But I still had quibbles – they needed longer, and I’d have liked to see the chorizo in smaller slices. There was no caramelisation on the outside, and almost no oil – one of the best dips there is – had escaped into the ramekin. It didn’t feel like quite enough, for a fiver.

The baked Camembert had similar problems – it was on the small side for nine pounds, if nice to share, but it hadn’t been baked long enough to be properly gooey. No thyme, no garlic, no slashes across the top, no attempts at all to gussy it up. A pile of red onion chutney was nice but both literally and figuratively too much, and the salad was too easily knocked off the tiny plank onto the table (which, and I’m not telling tales here, is exactly what Izzy did). The sections of pizza bread it came with were a promising teaser for what was to follow, but it wasn’t the right bread for this kind of dish: you need something you can use to really get into the corners.

Our mains arrived with a speed which made me wonder whether Lusso was hoping to use our table again before the evening was out. It was a shame, because before that point I was starting to really enjoy the experience of eating there. We were having a good old chinwag about the things 2018 had thrown us so far, speculating on our fellow diners (“I bet that lot are from Vodafone” said Izzy, referring to the loud, self-satisfied bunch on the middle table) and enjoying our drinks – a very serviceable, fruity Nero d’Avola for me and a Diet Coke, the curse of the driver, for Izzy.

Between us we’d gone for traditional and off-piste pizzas – the Times New Roman and the Comic Sans, you could say. My pizza Napoletana, the gastronomic dragon I always chase in pizza restaurants, was extremely good. The base was beautifully irregular and blackened at the edges, although maybe not as bubbled as I’d have liked. I might have liked saltier, wrinklier olives, or bigger, fatter capers, but I couldn’t argue with the quantities. The anchovies were simply astounding, little savoury bombs, as deep and salty as Marmite, scattered across the whole pizza: no experience, like at Franco Manco, of picking which three or four mouthfuls to particularly enjoy. The mixture of melted mozzarella and torn pieces of cold, fresh mozzarella was a masterstroke: why don’t more places do this? I was delighted from start to finish, and even though this was Newbury and not Paris, Bristol or Helsinki, a little bit of me was happily transported.

“I normally have the margherita with pesto” said Izzy, “but it can make it a bit oily so I’ve gone for some chicken on there too.” I imagine purists are recoiling in horror at this – chicken on pizza is just below pineapple in Maslow’s hierarchy of crimes against pizza – but I couldn’t bring myself to be shocked. I didn’t try it, but Izzy enjoyed it from start to finish. It had the same great base, the same excellent mix of cooked and fresh mozzarella and the pesto was vivid, verdant stuff. The chicken impressed me less, being big thick uniform slabs that could have come from a catering pack. If I’d thought it had been cooked there, or torn by hand, I’d have been more convinced. But if you did happen to be in the mood for a chicken and pesto pizza – and I suppose some people are, sometimes – you could do far worse.

Dessert was compulsory, given that Lusso started life as a gelateria. I’d made the mistake of looking at the ice cream flavours online beforehand – Cotswold lavender and honey! Sicilian pistachio! – but they only stock ten at any one time in the restaurant and the ones on display smacked of playing it safe – chocolate, vanilla, mint choc chip and so on. Not for the first time, I missed Reading’s Tutti Frutti and Paul’s recurring bonkers project to create Barkham Blue ice cream (he never quite got it right).

The menu doesn’t actually include the option to just have ice cream, which is a bit confusing, so when we ordered a couple of scoops each they dished it up into a cardboard tub which we took back to our tables, an odd way to conclude a meal in a sit-down restaurant. The salted caramel, as often happens, tasted more like butterscotch, without even a hint of salt: not bad, but not what I’d ordered. I couldn’t help comparing it with my recent visit to the Lido: better on price (£4.20 for two very generous scoops), better for texture, being far smoother and less gritty, but falling down on flavour. Fortunately, the chocolate was much better – pretty textbook, much closer to milk than plain. But ultimately, however good it was, it was still only chocolate ice cream. Izzy tells me her honeycomb ice cream was lovely: I didn’t get any.

Service was pleasant and friendly, if stretched towards the end, and any issues with timing in the kitchen really weren’t the fault of the solitary waitress working that night. Dinner for two came to fifty-four pounds, not including tip, and we were done in just over an hour.

“That pizza was lovely” I said as I walked Izzy to her car.

“I’m so glad you liked it, it would have been awful if you hadn’t. But, to be honest, I wouldn’t have gone with you if I wasn’t confident about it. And it’s great for kids – pizza and ice cream is perfect for them. You should mention that, you never talk about kids in your reviews.” (She’s right, to be fair, and the kids’ menu did look pretty good.)

When a restaurant is out of town, it’s hard to divorce it from its surroundings. Of course you might go there all the time if you lived there, but what if you didn’t? Lusso isn’t quite on a level with all those places I mentioned at the start of this review but, perhaps crucially, it is slightly better than pizza restaurants in Reading. So whether you go probably depends on how much you fancy a trip to Newbury – and, of course, how much you like pizza. That renders the rating almost irrelevant, but for what it’s worth I liked Lusso. I can see myself going back, probably at the weekend for a nice amble round the food markets, more bubbled crust, mozzarella and salty anchovy, a bottle of gin from Inn At Home to add to my collection and a pint or two in the King Charles Tavern before taking the train home. It doesn’t sound like a bad Saturday, does it?

Lusso – 7.5
11 Weavers Walk, Newbury, RG14 1AL
01635 32128

https://www.gelartoicecream.co.uk/lusso

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Thirsty Bear

The great lost ER review – the one none of you ever got to read – was of Smash, the craft beer, pizza and ping pong establishment on Gun Street. It’s a long sad story but essentially I went, I wrote the review and when I stopped reviewing because my circumstances changed it would have been inappropriate to publish it.

It’s a pity I never got to formally warn people not to go to Smash, but I suppose I can make amends now by saying that when I went the service was poor, they got the beers wrong, they got the pizzas wrong, when they got the pizzas right the pizzas were still very, very much wrong and that “barbecue pulled chicken fries” are a unique culinary hell I hope I never have to revisit (pulled? the chicken had barely even been chatted up). The TL:DR version of that review would just have said Don’t go to Smash: I gave it a rating of 4.0. I’m sorry you’ll never get to read it – I suppose it was my Edwin Drood, or – this one is for geek completists only – my Shada.

Anyway, now you’re all done Googling that, why have I decided to review Thirsty Bear and risk another diabolical craft beer and pizza experience? Well, I didn’t go without reservations, that’s true, but a bit of research suggested that even if Thirsty Bear was bad, it would at least be a different flavour of bad to the hipster-milking horrors of Smash.

It specialises in New York style pizza, which appears to be pizza so big you either have to share or order by the slice. The staff have been trained by “Fabio Ferranini, an award winning pizza chef”, and a Google of Fabio revealed that he was indeed a real person (although that isn’t necessarily a badge of pizza quality: so was Doctor Oetker). Not only that, but he did indeed come second in the 2016 European Classic Pizza Championships representing a restaurant called NY Fold in London.

By a remarkable coincidence, the menu for Thirsty Bear is absolutely identical to the menu for NY Fold, except that they’ve renamed all the pizzas after parts of NYC (I hope there’s a connection between Thirsty Bear and NY Fold, otherwise they might have paid Fabio for a bit of consultancy which largely involved pressing Control C and Control V). Anyway, all this “investigative journalism” – inverted commas deliberate – is by the by if the food is good, which is why I tipped up on a weekday night with my old schoolfriend and trusty sidekick Mike. He’d just returned from running a European coach tour that had finished up in Rome, which according to him made him the closest thing I had to a pizza expert.

There was an alarming omen as I approached Thirsty Bear on the night of my visit. Passing the site of the much-missed – by me, anyway – Kings Point, on a spot which Thirsty Bear, New York-style, would no doubt describe as the corner of Watlington and Kings, I spotted something unusual on the pavement in front of the hoardings. It was a single, perfectly intact, slice of pizza. I didn’t bend down to investigate: it may not have been that kind of pavement pizza but I still didn’t want to take a closer look. Even so, I couldn’t help but feel it didn’t bode well. Was it the cheesiest dirty protest of all time? Why did it look like it had been placed there so neatly? It was vexing.

Entering Thirsty Bear I realised immediately that I should have got there before Mike. He had picked a badly lit table on the ground floor, right under the giant TV screen showing Liverpool’s latest attempt to lose to a minor team from the continent – exactly the table you would pick, in fact, if you weren’t planning to photograph your food. So, from memory, the upstairs bit of Thirsty Bear is rather nice and the rooftop terrace is a lovely place to drink a pint on a summer afternoon. But I didn’t eat in either of those, so take that with a pinch of salt.

I can comment on the downstairs room though, less Brooklyn speakeasy and more run of the mill European sports bar. Apparently half a million was spent on the refurb (half a Purple Turtle, in other words), although looking round the place it was hard to see where it had all gone. The exposed brickwork and bear-themed artwork was all very well, but the furniture was somewhere between bland and weird.

We were sitting at a high table on what looked like stools but were actually benches seemingly made by glueing two stools together. The banquette in one corner was button-backed and welcoming, the other just looked like a blocky waste of PVC. It felt like they’d either run out of money or enthusiasm, possibly both. Most of all, it made me think of the interior of the Abbot Cook: mainly that it was done so much better than this. I wonder if they paid half a million?

“Sorry, I’ve started without you.” grinned Mike as he took a slug from his pint of Birra Moretti. The suitcases next to our table indicated that he was pretty much fresh off the plane.

“Celebrating downing tools, eh? When are you back at work?”

The grin broadened.

“Oh, not until the New Year.”

I knew that Mike worked half the year and kicked back in a skiing village for the rest of the time, but I didn’t realise that his last working day of 2017 was in September. We’d been to school together: where had I been going wrong? It was galling enough at work saying “see you next year” to people lucky enough to start their leave on something like the twentieth of December, but this was a whole other level. I resolved not to hate him, and not to try and let it colour my opinion of the food.

“At the end of my last tour this American couple asked if I’d mind them tipping me in UK currency so they could use up their last change. Do you know how much they ended up giving me?”

“Go on.” I said, half expecting it to be a pittance.

“Just over three hundred pounds! Shall I get you a pint of Strongbow Cloudy Apple?”

On second thoughts, maybe I should just focus on not letting it colour my opinion of the food, I decided.

Did I succeed? Well, it’s a good question. It’s possible that if I hadn’t been so jaded about Mike getting such an enormous tip I might have thought the arancini were an acceptable size, rather than ridiculously huge, bloated things drowned in a lake of what might pass for tomato sauce but was probably passata. I might have felt it was fine for the waitress to not blanch at us ordering two arancini and two lasagne balls, even though that was clearly too much for two people and bordered on upselling. I might have thought the lasagne balls actually did have “bolognese ragu” in them, rather than stingy, mealy, flavourless mince, an afterthought between the almost endless layers of pasta. It’s even possible that if I hadn’t been so distracted by the politics of envy I might have thought that both the arancini and the lasagne balls were indeed covered in panko breadcrumbs, with their distinctive flaky texture. Maybe it was a typo for Paxo breadcrumbs: it was at least possible given that the menu also spelled it as “lasagna”.

But no. Disappointing though the prospect of having to work for another three months before Christmas was, I could have been on top of the world and these starters would still have been mediocre at best. Well the arancini were, anyway: you can get better ones in Shed, in Jamie’s Italian and probably in Zizzi and M&S. The lasagne balls, though, were positively poor. I suppose you couldn’t knock the description though, because they plainly contained lasagne and they were, well, balls. But the menu didn’t say they’d come drowned in tomato sauce, and if I’d known I might not have ordered them.

Never mind: surely the pizza would be better. I mean, it rather had to be. We’d steered away from the pizza by the slice, mainly because it was sitting there under the lights and I wanted to give the kitchen the best possible chance to shine, even though I had reservations about a concept which forced you to choose between freshly made pizza in giant quantities and a wider range of pizzas which could have been sitting around for goodness knows how long. Confusingly, a specials board up at the bar suggested they were offering a greater selection of their pizzas by the slice – maybe that was a good idea, maybe not.

Mike and I couldn’t decide between two different pizzas. In the blue corner, there was the “Ellis Island” with stracchino (a fresh cow’s milk cheese), smoked salmon, smoked swordfish and rocket. In the red corner, we had the delights of the “Calabrisela” – they’d obviously run out of parts of NYC by this point – with ‘nduja and “buratta” (sic). “It’s a shame they don’t have the option to do half and half”, Mike had said, seconds before the waitress came to our table and said “you can have half and half if you want”. As so often, the menu managed to misinform.

Another piece of misinformation was to follow: a sixteen inch pizza, allegedly “perfect for two”, would easily have gone between three or even four people, especially ones stuffed to the gunwales on Paxo-clad spheres of iffiness. Would we have finished it all if it had been tastier? Possibly, but it wasn’t. To explain one of the reasons it was so disappointing, I need to go into some rather tedious detail: neither half we ordered had a tomato sauce base. It wasn’t clear from the menu that they wouldn’t, and I might have expected that for the Ellis Island but certainly not for the Calabrisela. The menu did, I later realised, have a symbol indicating that pizzas had a tomato base but – quelle surprise – some pizzas where the blurb said there was tomato sauce (like the “Lower East Side”) didn’t have the symbol and some pizzas which clearly would have had tomato sauce (the pepperoni one, for instance) didn’t carry the symbol.

Why is this important? Well, because without any tomato both halves of the pizza were even more stodgy. A hefty base you really had to go some to cut into and a thick layer of rapidly solidifying cheese did not make for an enjoyable experience at all, and for me if a pizza isn’t going to have a tomato base the menu – as it does at Pizza Express, or Franco Manca – really needs to spell that out in big letters. So was our pizza deliberately or accidentally disappointing? I don’t know, and I don’t even know which would be worse.

That aside, what about the toppings? Well, conceal your surprise but they were also unimpressive. At this point, I feel that Thirsty Bear deserves a little benefit of the doubt, so maybe it was burrata and not just big chunks of coldish mozzarella. It lacked the gooey middle I associate with burrata, but what do I know? And it may be that they’ve found some smoked swordfish which looks and tastes exactly like smoked salmon, that is even the same shade of pale pink.

Maybe. But it felt to me like all the things that made those pizzas exciting in theory just weren’t there in practice. Good smoked swordfish is wonderful, so is good burrata. I’m not sure it should be possible to take good swordfish and good burrata and make such average pizza. As for the other distinctive ingredients, the ‘nduja was acrid but didn’t have the complexity of flavour I associate with the best examples and the stracchino tasted and looked, well, like something I had best not describe. In fairness, the crust wasn’t bad, but by the end the main thing I wanted to do with it was throw it at somebody or something.

We left a reasonable amount, and I realised that all the other diners I had seen had taken at least some of their leftover pizza away in takeaway boxes. I didn’t quite understand why, and then I remembered the solitary slice, precisely set down on the pavement.

If this review truly reflects the meal I had, by now you must be longing for it to reach the end. Don’t worry, me too. So I should add that the Birra Moretti and Strongbow Cloudy Apple were both largely indistinguishable from such pints anywhere else, although the Moretti in particular, at four pounds ninety five, may have a slightly more bitter taste than usual. I should say that the service was actually quite pleasant (although the phrase “you really don’t need four of those balls for your starters” was conspicuous by its absence). And of course I should point out that our meal for two people with two giant disappointing starters, one giant disappointing pizza and four pints came to just under fifty-five pounds, not including tip.

So, neatly bringing us back to where we came in – as if on purpose – the TL:DR version of this review would say Don’t go to Thirsty Bear. Well, that’s not entirely fair I suppose; I mean, it’s better than Smash. And this might be the place for you, although I’ve thought about it a lot and I can’t see why it would be. If you want beer, I imagine there are better – and cheaper – places in town. If you want pizza there definitely are, unless you prize quantity over quality (in the interest of balance, I think Mike enjoyed this meal a lot more than I did). I did wonder about saying that you could at least sit on the roof terrace with mates on a sunny day and have a few slices of pizza and a cold pint and enjoy the sunshine, and then I remembered that the Allied Arms will let you slope off to Pizza Express next door and eat a Pollo Ad Astra in their garden. I really don’t enjoy saying all this, but there you have it: I just think Reading deserves more than this, and fortunately we have exactly that.

Thirsty Bear – 5.3
110 Kings Road, RG1 3BY
0118 9504439

http://thirsty-bear.com/

Franco Manca

I’ve long enjoyed referring to Reading as “Zone 8”, and one of the most significant developments in Reading’s restaurant scene during my time away was this description becoming less and less of a joke. Reading’s always been a chain magnet, but the latest wave of new and imminent arrivals has a distinct whiff of the capital about it: The Real Greek, The Botanist and Comptoir Libanais are already here; Pho, Honest Burger and Byron are on their way. A big Pret has sprung up just opposite the train station, too: by the time Crossrail gets here, people might alight at Reading and be unaware that they’re not in Kansas (or possibly Camden) anymore.

The one I was most excited about was the arrival of Franco Manca. For years I’ve been complaining that Reading could do with a really good pizzeria to rival the likes of Bosco in Bristol or The Hearth in Lewes. Then I discovered Papa Gee and found that I didn’t feel quite so deprived but even so, Franco Manca (along with the likes of Leon and Le Pain Quotidien) remained one of the chains I most wanted to see make it out west to Reading. I’ve been going to Franco Manca, in Brixton and Battersea, for many years and I’ve always loved their sourdough pizzas, gorgeous burrata and short unfussy wine list.

Initially they were going to open in the basement of Jackson’s, which I thought was a magnificent idea and a terrific way to bring a buzz to one of Reading’s most iconic buildings. But I guess they lost patience or got an offer they couldn’t refuse, because instead they have taken the Oracle’s shekel and opened where the Debenham’s restaurant – never reviewed on the blog, due to what I can only describe as a shocking oversight – used to be. It’s right next to The Real Greek, which extends the riverside and creates a little enclave for shoppers and diners to descend upon (it’s working, too: when I tried to book The Real Greek for a Saturday night to take my family out for dinner I was told it was already solidly booked.)

The space outside is nicely used and if the weather had been better I’d have been sorely tempted to eat in the sunshine, but I visited on an inclement weekday so I found myself waiting for a table to become available (in the spirit of another London trend coming our way, Franco Manca doesn’t take bookings). I managed to nab a table in the corner of the room, nearest the window, which gave me a good look at the room. It’s a big space: all square tables, wooden school-effect chairs and bare lightbulbs, the walls covered in what appeared to be upcycled pallets, no soft furnishings and nothing to absorb sound.

What this means is that, even tucked away in a corner, the experience was a cacophonous one. I’d come to Franco Manca with my friend Tim and the whole evening was marked by both of us constantly having to lean across the table and say “What?” “Pardon?” or “I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to ask you to repeat that. Again.” The irony: here we were in a room full of young chatty diners and I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more geriatric. It’s the first time I’ve seriously considered taking an ear trumpet to a restaurant (although, depressingly, I doubt it will be the last).

The menu is a short one – a small range of starters (or “Bites”) and seven pizzas, two without a tomato base. The specials board lists some extra starters, two special pizzas – one meat, one vegetarian – and an array of extra toppings. I was a bit confused by the flip side of the menu which talks about all of Franco Manca’s ingredients but doesn’t make it clear whether you can order those as extra toppings or not, but maybe I’m just getting old and finding hidden complications in a very simple menu (an unwelcome theme is emerging here: have you noticed?).

While we waited for our order to arrive, Tim and I enjoyed something from the compact and bijou drinks list. There are a handful of wines, two beers and one cider (described as “No Logo”, presumably a tribute to Naomi Klein’s late 90s anti-consumerist classic). I had the cider, which was pleasant – sparkling and cold but with a slightly agricultural hint. The waiter brought it over without a glass and I had to ask him to come back with one, but not before my request was met with a slightly vacant look. Perhaps all the hip gunslingers drink straight from the bottle (and, for that matter, can understand every word spoken by the person opposite them).

Tim, last seen on this blog enduring the culinary Vietnam of a trip to Cosmo, is a Beer Expert. He has forgotten more about beer than I’ve ever known (although that’s not saying a lot: he probably forgets more about beer in a single day than I’ve learned in a lifetime). So I’m well used to him putting on his Serious Beer Tasting Face, taking a sip, knotting his eyebrows, smacking his lips afterwards and pronouncing it “okay, I suppose”, as he did here.

“Of course, they say it’s no logo but it’s by Shepherd Neame”, he added. “It might go better with the food, to be fair.” I nodded sagely, pretending to understand what he was talking about – a look I’ve perfected over many evenings spent hearing Tim wax lyrical about the Citra hop (whatever that is: I thought it was a dance from the Twenties, but apparently not).

My starter was uncomplicated and delicious, a wooden board with four thick, generous slices of coppa and a ball of mozzarella perched on some salad. I yield to nobody in my love of mozzarella served before it’s been ruined by heat – so cold, clean and fresh-tasting! – and this was a pretty joyous example. I also love coppa, beautifully marbled pork shoulder which I’ve always found more interesting than Parma ham (how I miss the days when you could buy it from the deli counter at Carluccio’s). Again, this one was damned fine. And you could quibble about how this was a triumph of buying or assembly rather than of cooking if you really were so minded, but to me it was a triumph of eating, which is far more important. Decent value at six pounds, too.

“You’re going to describe that as ‘generous to a fault’, aren’t you?” said Tim. “You always say that in your reviews.”

“Well I’m not now.” I said; later I looked back, and it appears that I do indeed always say that.

Tim was faced with something altogether more baffling. The specials board had described it as “Gloucester old spot baked sausage”, which could potentially give you the impression that what turned up might resemble, you know, sausages. But the use of the singular, with hindsight, was a clue. Instead, what Tim got was a slab of sausage meat that had been baked with a tomato sauce and dolloped with what might have been crème fraiche. The sausage meat was lovely – coarse and shot through, I think, with a smidge of fennel. But it was an odd dish and I’m not sure Tim would have ordered it if it had been more accurately described (perhaps as middle class sausage McMuffin only without the muffin, or Millennial meatloaf). Half the fun of sausages is the contrast in texture between outside and inside (I like mine like mummified fingers, personally) and that was missing here. Tim looked enviously at my starter, and I gave him some coppa and mozzarella to apologise for ordering better than him. If anything, I think it made matters worse.

The pizzas took longer to arrive than I expected, which was no bad thing although it was characterised by a bit more ineffectual service. I’d ordered a dip for my crust (or “cornicione” as the Franco Manca menu likes to call it) and there was some general chaos about which one I’d gone for – pesto, since you asked – which even led to the manager having to come over and ask me what I’d ordered. She was quite brilliant, bright and personable – but if anything, that just highlighted that the rest of the service had been a bit… well… I’m struggling to find a more appropriate word than “gormless”, so let’s just leave that there.

If I won the battle of the starters, I think Tim did better on pizza. His was a pretty classic combination – tomato sauce, mozzarella, and (according to the menu) both dry and semi-dry chorizo. And it looked good, although I did have some reservations; maybe I’m just greedy but it felt a little light on chorizo and what chorizo there was was so unevenly distributed that it looked like it had been dropped onto the pizza from a great height by someone with their eyes shut. Again, I wondered if I just wasn’t cut out for this new devil-may-care attitude and perhaps literally nobody else would be bothered by this. What can’t be denied, though, is that it was tasty: the crust was bubbled, blistered and light, the base top notch.

“Can you tell the difference between the two types of chorizo?” I said to Tim as he hoovered up his final mouthful.

“Yes.” he said. “One of them is short and fat and the other one is wide and thin.”

“Helpful stuff, Tim. I’ll make sure I put that in the review.”

My pizza, by contrast, just didn’t work. I went for one without a tomato sauce base and instead it came with yellow tomatoes, buffalo ricotta and spicy lamb sausage. It looked unbalanced to me when they put it down in front of me and it tasted unbalanced too: the tomatoes were sweet, the ricotta was sweet and although the sausage – something a bit like merguez – was genuinely fiery and delicious there just wasn’t enough of it to counteract everything else. Again, everything looked assembled at random and in this case it made for quite an unattractive pizza, with the sausage unpleasantly reminiscent of droppings and the ricotta looking disconcertingly like cuckoo spit (hungry yet?). The pesto dip was an excellent idea but in execution it just lacked enough salt and parmesan to offset the oil.

On a previous trip to Franco Manco just after it opened I had been absolutely enchanted by a lemon and rosemary cake with Greek yoghurt and honey, which has to be one of the nicest things I’ve eaten this year. I tell you this because, in keeping with the rest of the evening, they had taken it off the menu for this visit. So we skipped dessert, cut our losses, paid up and beetled off to the pub. The bill came to just under forty-two pounds for two, without tip. Both pizzas, and this will give you a clue as to Franco Manca’s popularity, clocked in at around eight pounds.

When I go for dinner on duty with a companion, I like to play little game at the end. We text our rating out of 10 to each other simultaneously, like some kind of digital gunfight, and compare notes. Tim’s rating was nothing special: he wasn’t impressed with Franco Manca. He said the food was good but not good enough to overcome the room and the service. He’d sooner go to Papa Gee, he said, and of course I felt a little bit proud of him for that. It quite outweighed his shortcomings when it came to describing chorizo, which after all is a niche skill in anybody’s book.

It might surprise you, based on everything that’s gone before, that I feel a little more kindly disposed to Franco Manco than Tim was. Restaurants are good at different things, and some restaurants can be good despite excelling at something which isn’t necessarily my thing. And there is a lot to be said for Franco Manca if you’re grabbing a quick meal in the centre of town, or you’re on a budget, or if you really like pizza. Or if you’re considerably younger than me (many people are, these days), wear a snapback indoors and don’t mind raising your voice to have even a rudimentary conversation with your mates. Or, now I come to think of it, if you want to eat somewhere good in the Oracle which isn’t Cote. The pizza, as long as you pick the right one, is good enough to overcome a multitude of sins, and next time I go I’ll stick to the tried and tested classic of anchovies, olives, capers and basil. Personally, I can see myself heading there at lunchtime on a sunny day, or having an early dinner there before ambling off to the cinema or Tuesday Music Club at the Global Cafe, full and happy, ear trumpet stowed away in my satchel.

Franco Manca – 6.8
The Oracle, RG1 2AT
0118 9952086

http://www.francomanca.co.uk/restaurants/reading/

Buon Appetito

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.

BuonGoat

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.

BuonBruschetta

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.

BuonPizza

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.

BuonPasta

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
0118 3273390

Buon Appetito

Coppa Club, Sonning

This is my second attempt to review Coppa Club. The first time, I went on a winter night last year only to be escorted to a table for two next to the big French doors, a table so cold that it could turn tomato soup into gazpacho in minutes. I asked to be moved and slack-jawed confusion broke out among the black-shirted serving staff. Minutes later I was told this wasn’t possible, even though I was pretty sure I could see other tables were vacant. When I said thanks but no thanks and voted with my feet, I’m not sure they even noticed me leaving. Perhaps there was nothing they could do, but it would have felt nice if they’d tried, suggested a drink in the bar or pointed out when a suitable table might become available. I couldn’t work out whether they were fazed or unfussed, but either way I was in no hurry to go back.

In the meantime, friends of mine have enthused about the place. More for lunches than dinners, I was told, but even so I got a steady stream of positive feedback which made me think it was time to give it another chance. And it’s the kind of place I see appearing in my Twitter feed all the time – lovely pictures of well-presented dishes, not to mention one of the most attractive dining rooms I’ve seen in a long time. So eventually, now that the days are getting warmer, I decided I could leave it no longer. Besides, after the delights of all you can eat dining I found myself pining for something clever and delicate.

And yes, it really is a beautiful room. It ticks all the boxes without looking studied or cynical – a bit of exposed brickwork, granted, but some lovely furniture in muted greens and blues, button back banquettes and beautiful burnished geometric metal lampshades (no bare swinging hipster bulbs here, thank you very much). It feels like someone has thrown money at this place – how very Sonning – until it started to bounce off, and that prosperity starts out very alluring, although by the end of the evening I could see how it might get a little smug.

Turning up on a Sunday night I was delighted to get one of the booths. There’s a blue banquette running along the middle of the room but the booths, which are closer to the exposed brickwork and the bar, were nicer and cosier. Quite roomy for two people, too, although if there were four of you in one you’d need to get along reasonably well. That seemed a bit of a theme in general, actually – looking at the tables for six I found myself thinking that they’d more sensibly seat four. Perhaps that’s why, on my previous visit, they weren’t prepared to find anywhere else for a table for two to eat. Perhaps, too, packing diners in is how Coppa Club could afford to spend so much money on refurbishing the place (or perhaps I’m being a bit harsh, in which case I’m sure some of you will tell me).

I liked the menu enormously, and it felt like it had just enough things to pick between without being bewildering. It reminded me a lot of places like Jamie’s Italian, so I wasn’t entirely surprised later when doing some research to discover that the chef at Coppa Club has worked there. It’s a more compact menu than at Jamie’s, but still presented a few complicated decisions – to share or not to share, to order pasta, that kind of thing. Horse trading took longer than usual, which was just as well because getting anybody interested enough to take an order did too.

Now, normally I talk about service right at the end of a review as part of wrapping things up but with Coppa Club I really feel I have to make an exception, because it was so uniformly poor every step of the way. Don’t get me wrong – it was friendly and affable, but beyond that they managed to get pretty much everything wrong. You could never get any attention, despite it not being a busy night. The starters turned up immediately after they were ordered, at the same time as the nibbles we’d ordered to tide us over. Getting someone to bring the bill at the end was a challenge, as was paying it once it had been brought to the table. Many of the serving staff seemed to have been trained to completely ignore customers altogether, usually while walking past or near their tables, and when I left after what felt like an eternity settling up I saw one of the waiters chatting to his friends at the bar.

I don’t take any pleasure in saying this, but it was especially jarring considering what a lovely room it was and how good some of the food turned out to be. And that’s not even getting on to some of the things which, although they bugged me, might not be deal-breakers for you. I regularly saw waiters leaning right across diner A to serve diner B, something which (in my book at least) you really should not do. Another thing, which may sound minor to you, was about where we were sitting. The booths were open on one side (the side nearest the other tables) but closed off on the other, and behind them was a little corridor section where the serving staff could get water, wine, glasses and so forth. Our waiter kept taking orders or handing us wine over that barrier, which just felt downright strange, like talking to your neighbour over the garden fence without ever having been introduced. Perhaps this is a new trend in informal dining which has passed me by, but I just didn’t like it: it felt more like laziness.

Let’s move on to the happier subject of the food, because some of this was really pretty good. The nibbles – deep fried gnocchi with parmesan and truffle oil – were pleasant (although I’d have enjoyed them more if they’d arrived some time before the starters – sorry to keep going on about that), little breaded nuggets of tasty starch. The truffle oil, as so often, added an olfactory tease that never followed through when you actually ate the food, but never mind.

CoppaGnocchi

Better was the fritto misto – a very generous helping of squid and white fish, seasoned and dusted in what might have been semolina flour, along with a solitary prawn and a slice of scallop. This was very nice stuff – far better than many places’ efforts at fritto misto – and my favourite bit was the small pieces of squid, all crispy tentacles with that rough, savoury coating, texture triumphing over taste. The tartare sauce it came with was quite nice but maybe a little too sophisticated, too Sonning, for my taste. I reckoned it needed more vinegar and acid, more gherkin or capers or – starting to drool now – both, but I’m a sucker for pickles and it might just be me being a Philistine.

CoppaFritto

The other starter, “beets and ricotta bruschetta”, was lovely; a single slice of ciabatta-like bread with a layer of bright pink whipped ricotta topped with cubes of beetroot. That alone would have been enough to meet the job description, but there was a little more: wafer thin beetroot crisps in red and gold on top to add another level of texture, then some pretty salad leaves dressed with olive oil (I think) and cheese shavings, because cheese shavings make everything better. I liked it a lot: refreshingly clean but with that earthiness that beetroot brings, all dark and zingy. It was a dish that looked like winter but tasted of spring, and it made me long for longer days.

CoppaBruschetta

The starters had come so quickly that I was worried I would be out of Coppa Club in next to no time, but thankfully they slowed it down for the mains. If anything, this gave me and my companion a chance to play spot the difference between my glass of entry level Syrah and her glass of more expensive Shiraz (we couldn’t really find one, which is maybe why I try not to say too much about wine). It also meant that the mains arrived pretty much when we were ready, probably the only piece of good timing about the whole evening.

I’d found choosing a main at Coppa Club surprisingly difficult. My companion had already bagged the pizza, having pasta as a main felt a bit too monotonous, ordering the burger felt like it would have been a poor show and I wasn’t in the mood for a whole fish on the bone, lovely though that sounded. So the lamb chops – described as “scorched fingers” on the menu, perhaps that’s a draw for some people – won by default and, in hindsight, I’m delighted that they did. This was a dish for people who like meat and fat – three long, thin, chops with a square of tender meat at the end but, more importantly, rich seams of fatty meat along the bone, caramelised, melting and utterly delicious. I wouldn’t describe myself as the world’s biggest carnivore (although I know several people with a decent shot at that title), but some nights you just want red meat and iron and this was that night and that dish was in the right place at the right time.

CoppaChops

It wasn’t perfect, mind you. The chops were so long and thin that eating them was unwieldy, as was pushing the bone out of the way when you were done. They came with watercress, which I can take or leave, and a salsa verde which fell into the same trap as the tartare sauce. I could admire it, this glossy smear of fresh mint and oil, but I wanted some vinegar in there, some sharpness to stop my mouth being coated with fat (I’m well aware, writing this, that I’ve gone to Coppa Club and said that two of the dishes could have been improved with jars of sauce from Colman’s: judge away). What did improve the lamb, immeasurably, were the “rustic potatoes” – little roasted potatoes, all crunchy corners and fluffy insides, festooned with Parmesan and shot through with green shards of fried sage; if they’d put those on the “nibbles” section of the menu I might have started and stopped right there.

CoppaPots

I really wanted to try pizza too, to see if Coppa Club was up there with all those pizzerias I daydream of dropping in Reading, and whether the “slow proved, sourdough base” would live up to billing. Well, sadly not really. The base was too thick in the wrong places, no bubbly edges and a stodgy, rather soggy middle. It tasted decent enough, but it was lacking that chewy, moreish flavour I expected from a sourdough base. There was a bit too much cheese, in my opinion, although I guess that’s better than the alternative. I went for the “Coppa Club Hot” and the ‘nduja on it was delicious, super-intense, punchy, salty, almost acrid. If only there had been more – I know a little goes a long way but three small teaspooned dots of it across the whole pizza still felt a little mean. The spicy salami was less successful, a bit more simple in flavour (although still with loads of heat) but personally I’d have liked it a little more crisp; maybe that would have happened if the pizza hadn’t been so thick. My guest didn’t eat more than half – after three slices I was told that it didn’t seem worth eating the rest of what was essentially a dolled up pepperoni pizza.

CoppaPizza

We didn’t stay for dessert – nothing quite appealed enough and by then I had been sufficiently irritated by my experience that I was quite comfortable leaving. A shame really, as one might have helped to tide me over in the inordinate wait for getting and paying the bill. Even waiting to ask for the bill, dessert menus in front of us, was an odd experience; one of the waiters cleared my folded napkin as he passed our table without actually speaking to us or making eye contact (which is quite hard to do, I think). In the end we had to call out to a passing waiter, who seemed to be cleaning up rather than actually, um, waiting. Dinner for two came to fifty pounds near as damnit and – and I almost never, ever do this – I did not tip.

At the end of the meal my companion and I were discussing Coppa Club, not entirely sure what to make of it. I said I preferred it to Jamie’s Italian, my companion thought Jamie’s was better. We both agreed that if Coppa Club was in an easier location to get to we’d probably go back, but that it wasn’t quite enough to prompt a trip out to Sonning. Above all, the service baffled us both – how can a place work so hard at everything else and get that wrong? Since coming back, mulling it over and sitting down to write this, the power of Google has revealed several enthusiastic reviews of Coppa Club, with a few bloggers going and thoroughly enjoying it. Some of them had some of the dishes I had, so it was strange to read people waxing lyrical over the fritto misto, or the lamb chops. Only one of the reviews specifically said that it was comped, so it might be that people spending their own money really loved Coppa Club and I – with my slight grouchiness about service and seating, with a rustic potato on my shoulder – just took against it. But I wasn’t won over; there’s something irksome about a place that, however nice it might be, isn’t as good as it thinks it is.

Coppa Club – 6.8
The Great House, Thames Street, Sonning, RG4 6UT
0118 9219890

http://coppaclub.co.uk/