Feature: Reading’s best…

There’s a new trend in Berkshire Live which drives me absolutely crackers. Having moved on from a steady emetic trickle of “X’s quiet life in [insert name of Berkshire village here]” articles (translation: here’s somebody who used to live in Berkshire and that’s literally all we know about them) their latest form of copy and paste gonzo journalism is one where they knock up madlibs-style reviews of restaurants which – and you could bet your life savings on this – the “journalist” has never visited.

The new trend – or do I mean new low? – is to churn out articles that say “the X restaurant so good you’ll think you’re in [the most famous city in country X]”. It’s so witless it could almost be amusing. So if you eat in l’Ortolan, for instance, you could imagine you’re in Paris (I’ve been to Paris: l’Ortolan is nothing like it). If you have tapas in Wokingham’s Sanpa you could believe you’re in Madrid, allegedly, and never mind the pesky detail that tapas is from Andalusia, miles away to the south. 

Oh, and if you eat American barbecue in Blue’s Smokehouse – and it’s great, so maybe you should – guess what? Close your eyes and you could be in the Big Apple. Again, it’s not noted for its barbecue but details are for pedants, apparently. It goes on: Quattro is just like Rome, some Chinese restaurant in Cookham is the spitting image of downtown Beijing, Sapana Home is like dining in the Himalayas (they call out the “momo dumplings” at Sapana, which is like saying I very much enjoyed the chips potatoes). I thought they couldn’t get more laughable but the latest says that afternoon tea at the Forbury Hotel “will make you feel like you’re dining with the King”. Stay classy, Berkshire Live.

But that isn’t enough, so to pad out the article – and to further pull the wool over your eyes – they like to add a bit of bumf from the restaurant’s website and those all important customer opinions. After all, in Berkshire Live’s own immortal words, “Recent years has brought more people online as it gives them an easy way to choose somewhere to eat. One place most of us look is the reviews – what do people really think about where we want to eat? We decided to list the last three reviews all less than a month ago to see what people have said.” 

Maybe people are looking online because local papers have died and been replaced by moronic clickbait? Just a thought. But yes, the rest of their extensive research consists of firing up Tripadvisor and copying and pasting the three most recent reviews. But Berkshire Live doesn’t care about that. In their mind, everybody wins: they hit their targets for pumping out meaningless content to sell ad space and you get a “review” which tells you nothing about the restaurant, Ctrl-C and Ctrl-Vd by somebody who has never been there and, for all we know, has never even left their home office (are Reach plc staff affected by the train strikes? It seems unlikely). Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt and keema, as they say, is your nan.

So this is what passes for journalism these days and the most insulting thing is that they’re so cretinous they think nobody will notice. How times have changed. In the old days, local newspapers used to sneak ads into the paper and not tell readers that money had changed hands and many people, myself included, were outraged about that. Nowadays they’re so desperate for content that they publish what are effectively full length ads without even being paid for the privilege. It makes you wonder who pumps out more sewage: the water companies or Reach plc?

Anyway, by contrast this week’s feature – no review, because I’m away this week – is one of those lists everyone likes with one crucial difference: they’re my opinions, born of going out there and trying as much of Reading’s food and drink as I can. So this article might come in handy if you can’t be arsed to schlep through any of my lists, or to comb through the blog but just want to know, in my entirely subjective opinion, where to get the best coffee, pizza, sandwich and so much more in Reading. Read, enjoy, share, comment and – of course – disagree, because if you don’t disagree with a single thing on this list I’ll be very surprised indeed.

Apart from my (entirely subjective, don’t forget) guarantee of quality I can promise you one other thing. None of these places will make you feel like you’re in Naples, New York or Nagoya. Because, as we’ve established, that is utter, utter bollocks. Besides, they’ll go one better than that: they’ll make you glad you’re in the Ding.

Reading’s best breakfast – Dee Caf

Dee Caf’s breakfast isn’t a looker, and nothing about it is built for Instagram. But in terms of midmorning indulgence on a plate it is probably unparalleled in Reading and well worth a meander out in the direction of Tilehurst. Bacon and sausages AND black pudding, all from a local butcher? Hash browns and properly buttered toast too, on an enamel plate which is only just big enough to contain all that bounty? Count me in. When I went the only drawback was the coffee – they’ve now switched to Anonymous, which is a very smart move. (Montague House, 12 Spey Road, RG30 4DG)

Honourable mention: The Switch

What is it with West Reading and good breakfasts? The smashed avo with bacon at The Switch is unashamedly high-end, and priced accordingly, but shows what a good dish it can be in the right hands. (19 The Triangle, RG30 4RN)

Reading’s best burger – Smash N Grab

Smash N Grab is quietly doing great things down on Cemetery Junction and their inimitable take on smashed burgers easily justifies a trip out of the centre. These are indulgent, overloaded burgers – messy, stuffed, deeply sinful things, and you will feel replete, satisfied and a little ashamed of yourself at the end of one. The chips still need work, and the cake shakes are a little artery-hardening for me, but the burgers are still unbeatable. If it’s on the menu, the MacBook Pro (topped with a slab of breaded, deep-fried macaroni cheese) is every bit as so-wrong-it’s-right as it sounds. (124 London Road, RG1 5AY)

Honourable mention: Honest Burgers

Reading’s branch of the small chain is the best town centre option and very rarely has a bad day at the office. The burger, served pink, is reliably terrific and the monthly specials mix things up nicely. They’ve just added a buffalo fried chicken burger to their menu, if beef isn’t your bag. (1-5 King Street, RG1 2HB)

Reading’s best coffee – C.U.P.

C.U.P. just edges it for me, and both its Blagrave Street and Reading Minster outposts have a lot going for them. Blagrave Street is great for people watching passers-by, and the seats outside Reading Minster are great for people watching your fellow customers. Either way, although the latte is superb the signature here is the mocha, made with an awful lot of real chocolate – a dessert, a pick me up, a treat and a necessity all crammed into a single takeaway cup. (7 Blagrave Street, RG1 1PJ/53 St Mary’s Butts, RG1 2LG)

Honourable mention: Workhouse Coffee

The eminence grise of Reading’s coffee culture, Workhouse is superb and reliable for latte and my espresso-drinking friends swear by their espresso. It’s a shame the greed and neglect of the Mercure Hotel has robbed them of what was one of town’s best and sunniest al fresco spaces, and the interior feels like it needs a bit of love. But the staff are great and the coffee remains top notch. (10-12 King Street, RG1 2HF, also 335 Oxford Road, RG30 1AY)

Reading’s best fish and chips – Finn’s

I know nobody will agree with this unless they live near Finn’s, and I can’t remember the last time I had fish and chips at Wing’s, or Deep Blue, or that other place you like. But I maintain that Finn’s, the pride of east Reading, does wonderful fish and chips with a light, crispy batter and chips that have the perfect balance of floury stodge and crunchy shrapnel. I must work up the courage to try their masala cod one cold winter’s evening. (42b Erleigh Road, RG1 5NA)

Runner-up: The Lyndhurst

The Lyndhurst serves up the epitome of pub fish and chips, an excellent portion of battered leviathan and some of Reading’s very best chips. Those of you who like mushy peas will enjoy these, and those of you who tend to leave them have something in common with me. Spoiler alert: this is not the Lyndhurst’s only appearance on this list, you may not be surprised to hear. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG)

Reading’s best fried chicken – The Lyndhurst

See? Told you. The Lyndhurst’s chicken karaage has been tweaked and tinkered with steadily since it first appeared on their menu last year. They took it off the menu just as I was developing a serious karaage habit (forget ketamine: this is the real K hole) and then this year I was overjoyed when they brought it back. The texture is unbelievably crunchy and gnarly, the portion size is so generous that you won’t mind offering your companions a piece and making them jealous and the little shards of fried kale add an extra savoury note. What was a kewpie mayo has now been swapped – another tweak – for a wasabi mayo which adds just enough sinus-clearing power. (88 Queens Road, RG1 4DG)

Runner-up: ThaiGrr!

You could hold a piece of fried kale between this and the Lyndhurst’s karaage, that’s how little separates them in terms of quality. ThaiGrr’s chicken is a ridiculously generous six jointed pieces on the bone with shatteringly crisp skin, tender meat and little slivers of garlic sprinkled on top. It comes with some very pleasant sweet chilli sauce, and you can spend all six pieces wondering if it needs the dip without ever reaching a conclusion. (1d Queens Walk, RG1 7QF)

Reading’s best pizza – Buon Appetito

One of my favourite discoveries of the last year has been the revitalised Buon Appetito at the end of Chatham Street which, for my money, knocks out the very best pizza in town. The base, a puffy-crusted, leopard-spotted delight, is next level good and the range of toppings is just wide enough without getting ridiculous. I am a huge fan of their Napoli which comes strewn with anchovies, olives and crispy fried capers, but there’s also a lot to be said for the Blue Parma, with twenty-four month aged Parma ham and a fair old whack of gorgonzola. It helps that Buon Appetito is one of Reading’s very best al fresco spots: they mix a mean Aperol spritz or negroni, too. (146 Chatham Street, RG1 7HT)

Honourable mention: Papa Gee

The other side of the river on Prospect Street, Papa Gee has nearly twenty years of experience of dough-slinging and it really shows. My latest visit was extremely recent, so I’m delighted to have extremely fresh memories of how good they are. The base maybe doesn’t quite have the quality of Buon Appetito’s, but you can expect pizzas topped by a man who doesn’t enjoy saying “when”. The iconic dish here, the pizza Sofia Loren, comes with pepperoni, beautiful coarse nuggets of sausage, red onions, chilli and my unqualified endorsement. (5 Prospect Street, RG4 8JB)

Reading’s best sandwich: Madoo

This is an incredibly difficult category, and I think I’ve only been able to narrow it down to two with a little cheating – wraps get their own category, and technically a burger is a sandwich too. But, to get off the fence, at the moment I’m not sure anyone can top the toasties at Madoo. Made with a variety of focaccia and pretty much customisable however you like, they are a carby, cheesy miracle on Duke Street. On my most recent visit, on the day of the big funeral, I had pancetta and scamorza in a focaccia topped with onion and thin slices of potato: try being sad after scoffing one of those. (10-14 Duke Street, RG1 4RU)

Honourable mention: Shed

Shed is still the godfather of Reading’s sandwich scene. Its lunch scene in general, to be honest. Their Tuna Turner – all tuna mayo and oozing cheese, studded with jalapenos, the bread bronzed and burnished – should earn them a blue plaque one day (other sandwiches are, of course, available). (8 Merchants Place, RG1 1DT)

Reading’s best street food: Gurt Wings

Gurt Wings is a street food player with a national profile and, luckily for us, a soft spot for Reading. From their regular presence at Blue Collar’s Friday markets they took on a permanent pitch at Blue Collar Corner in March, and if the recent announcement that they’re leaving Blue Collar Corner has caused gloom and withdrawal symptoms across the land, the pill has been slightly sweetened by the news that they’re returning to the Friday markets again.

Everything they do is magnificent but the tenders, smothered in hot and sour buffalo and sharpened with a little blue cheese sauce, are truly fantastic. I also absolutely love their JFC – popcorn chicken with a hyper-punchy gochujang sauce and a smidge of sriracha mayo. About once a year they do a chicken burger in an iced doughnut topped with candied bacon – it has to be tried to be believed, but once is probably enough. (Market Place, RG1 2DE, Fridays only)

Honourable mention: Purée

Although Blue Collar is synonymous with street food in Reading, one of Reading’s finest street food options is Purée, the distinctive green van on Broad Street near our smaller, less attractive branch of Boots. Sam Adaci’s van took a sabbatical during Covid and a lot of us were very worried that it might not return, but gladly he is there most lunchtimes dishing up some of the best – and best value – lunches in town. The real winner here is the challoumi wrap – jammed full of glorious chicken and halloumi with hot sauce, garlic sauce, pickles, the works. (Broad Street, RG1 2AA)

Reading’s best sushi – Intoku

I had a rather hit and miss visit to Intoku earlier this year: the service was slapdash in all kinds of ways, but I also saw enough to convince myself that in terms of quality we finally have a restaurant in Reading that can approach the likes of Miyazaki in Maidenhead or my all-time favourite, Windsor’s Misugo. The soft shell crab rolls are an absolute dream, the maki are precise and nicely done and although the sashimi isn’t Reading’s best, it’s good enough. The fact that they also do gorgeous bao and possibly the best crispy squid I’ve had in town is just a bonus. (30a Chain Street, RG1 2HX)

Honourable mention – Sushimania

I know Osaka and Oishi have their fans, but I have a real soft spot for Sushimania, on that slightly grim brutalist corner overlooking the Hexagon. It’s all you can eat but made to order, and you can get most of the core menu that way, an inexpensive treat on a week night with a bottle of Asahi. They ration you on the salmon sashimi and the eel nigiri – make sure you get your full quota of both, because they’re bloody great. (9 Queens Walk, RG1 7QF)

Reading’s best wrap: Cairo Cafe

Go to Cairo Cafe and order the chicken shawarma wrap. Marvel at what comes out, hotter than the sun, perfectly assembled, crisped on the outside, gooey with cheese, the meat singing with spices and mint. Eat it in that peaceful place, looking out the window at the comings and goings of the grittier end of town, and tell me there’s a better wrap in Reading. And no, you don’t feel just like you’re in Cairo: you feel like you’re on West Street, because you are.

There’s a lot of chicken in this list, isn’t there? Reading really needs another restaurant reviewer who likes chicken a little less than I do. (13 West Street, RG1 1TT)

Honourable mention: Geo Café

Time for the disclaimer I put up every time I talk about Geo Café – unlike most restaurant owners in Reading, I would class Keti and Zezva as friends, and so you are absolutely free to disregard this, or take it with a pinch of salt, or say I should have picked someone like Mission Burrito instead. But you would be missing out if you hadn’t tried Geo Café’s wraps – either the chicken, pungent with almost acrid ajika and walnut sauce, like nothing you’ve ever tasted, or filled with aubergine, sliced thin, fried and rolled around more of that walnut sauce. Everyone I know who’s tried Georgian food comes away saying Why don’t more people know how good this is? and I couldn’t agree more: it may be the best cuisine you’ve never tried.

So yes, by all means ignore this tip but believe me – if it wasn’t for the fact that they’re my friends, Geo Café might well have topped this category. (10 Prospect Street, RG4 8JG)

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Restaurant review: Papa Gee

As a restaurant reviewer, however assiduously you do your research, however good you think you are at reading the runes of a menu to try and figure out whether a Brakes lorry regularly pulls up outside the crime scene, however much you trawl through Tripadvisor or other blogs – good luck finding those, by the way – restaurants always retain the capacity to surprise. 

You can expect somewhere to be good, all the signs can say it will be, but there’s always a possibility that you’ll wind up with an underwhelming meal if you’re lucky, an out-and out-duffer if you’re not. This is especially the case when hype is involved. Or plain gratitude that a place has opened at all, either because a big name is gracing a town with its presence or because the town in question is a wasteland for decent places to eat. 

The more refreshing phenomenon is when it happens the other way round, when you go to an unspecial-looking restaurant with no particular expectations only to discover that you have a proper find on your hands. That realisation that dawns gradually throughout the meal, that sense of hold on, this is really good, is one of my favourite things about restaurants, and about reviewing them. It’s happened to me a fair few times, but one that’s always stayed with me was the March evening over seven years ago when I crossed the threshold of Papa Gee. 

Papa Gee, back in 2015, was an Italian restaurant on the Caversham Road, on the ground floor of the Rainbows Lodge Hotel. I’d never heard of anyone who had been to Papa Gee, and at the time I knew people who lived in Little Wales, the maze of streets on the other side of the Caversham Road named after Cardiff, Swansea, Newport. Every time I walked past Papa Gee, probably en route to a booking at Mya Lacarte, the place seemed closed. 

Inauspicious was putting it lightly. So nobody was more surprised than me when I found Papa Gee wasn’t some kind of white elephant but was instead a hugely creditable little restaurant doing belting pizzas, rather nice pasta and antipasti, a family business with owner and Neapolitan Gaetano Abete, the eponymous Papa Gee, in the kitchen. I had a splendid evening, although arguably the cherry on the cake was not having to stay in the hotel upstairs afterwards.

I walked away with my faith in the world somewhat restored, and it turned out to be one of the most delightful curveballs of the very early days of this blog. And the weird thing is, people definitely went to Papa Gee before I reviewed it. It’s not as if I discovered the place: it had decent writeups on TripAdvisor and had been trading for over ten years. It’s just that I’d never met a Papa Gee customer, back then. Maybe they didn’t want the rest of us finding out.

I was worried about Papa Gee after that, because the owners of Rainbows Lodge sold the building to the Easy Hotel chain a couple of years later and the restaurant was out on its ear. But then they announced what, with the benefit of hindsight, was a perfect move – and in October 2017 they took over the old Mya Lacarte site on Prospect Street, closer to the action in Caversham. 

It was a brave move to open slap bang opposite Quattro, Caversham’s long-serving Italian restaurant, and the conditions got even tougher a couple of years later when the Last Crumb, also offering pizza, opened at the top of the road where the Prince Of Wales used to be. And yet here we are in 2022 and, post-pandemic, Papa Gee is still going. 

And that’s partly why they’re the subject of this week’s review. The thing is, I’d never visited them in their new home and I was starting to feel bad about that; I didn’t want them to be continually on my to do list only to find, one day, that they’d closed before I’d got round to visiting. So I made my way there with Zoë on a Friday evening, post work, the weekend stretching out ahead waiting to be filled with units and calories. Like the very first time I visited Papa Gee, a lifetime ago, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.

It was weird setting foot in the room where I’d had so many great meals when it was Mya Lacarte, but at the same time it felt completely natural to have Papa Gee in that spot. It helps that it’s a lovely dining room. It’s double aspect with windows on both edges of the street corner; someone long ago made the very sensible decision to move the entrance to the side of the building, and it really helps to create a lively, convivial space. 

And I needn’t have worried about Papa Gee because, at half seven on a Friday night, almost every table was already occupied. It made me think: how long was it, in Reading at least, since I’d visited a really busy restaurant? I’d almost forgotten the atmosphere of one, all the life and celebratory excitement contained in a dining room on one of the busiest nights of the week. Restaurants are not an exact, empirical science: you can judge menus, rooms and dishes all you like, but when a place is full of happy diners a magical transformation happens and the whole thing is infinitely more than the sum of its parts. 

That was very much in full swing as we took our seats – big groups of friends, couples sitting by the window on dates, people catching up, or celebrating, or just rejoicing that the working week was over: all Caversham life was there. And it didn’t seem, from the easy way the customers had with the staff, that anybody there was a newcomer to Papa Gee. 

Speaking of service, there was another happy reunion in store because the first member of staff I saw was Ihor. Now, back when I first visited Papa Gee Ihor was running the front of house at Kyrenia and, to my mind, did as good a job of front of house as anybody in Reading at the time. Then Kyrenia got sold and became Ketty’s Taste Of Cyprus (but the menus and the website and the sign on the front still said Kyrenia) and now it’s called Spitiko. And somewhere during that slightly chaotic transition Ihor parted company with them. 

I’d heard he was working at Papa Gee since they relocated but it was still a joy to see him – still slim, moustachioed and apologetically friendly, seemingly not having aged a day since our paths crossed six years ago. And again, it just felt like he was exactly where he was meant to be: of course Papa Gee would end up on this Caversham street corner, and of course Ihor would wind up working here. It made a kind of innate cosmic sense. It felt right.

Now all this wouldn’t mean much if the food turned out to be bobbins, but fortunately we weren’t in that territory at all. Zoë’s starter of spaghetti carbonara – a good reference dish in any Italian restaurant – was streets ahead of most that I’ve tried. It showed up the albino monstrosity at Cozze and while eating it, enjoying the crispy nuggets of guanciale, Zoë muttered darkly about the awful meat-free carbonara she’d been tricked with at Sonny Stores, Bristol’s darling of the broadsheets. This, a starter portion, was far bigger and about half the price. They gave Zoë the option of having it with or without cream and for my money she chose wrong: but even diluted with cream it still had that golden colour, although the flavour was a bit dialled down for my liking.

It probably pipped my starter though, the polpetto al sugo. The meatballs are billed as homemade and they definitely had the irregularity of ones rolled with gusto in the kitchen. They had a perfect coarse texture, too – no disturbingly smooth homogeneity here – but I would have liked a little more seasoning. That said, they were cosseted by a beautiful, sticky, reduced tomato sauce which did much to improve matters, along with a couple of slightly pointless slices of toasted ciabatta, assembled like a makeshift toast rack. Some surprisingly intense and welcome basil leaves finished things off. Put it this way: I’m glad I tried it, but if I’d gone for the larger portion, or had them in pasta, I think I’d have found it a bit monotonous.

Our mains turned up a little more briskly than I’d have chosen, ten or fifteen minutes after we’d dispatched our starters. But in my experience extremely busy restaurants tend to go one of two ways: they either take ages or bang things out with military precision. Papa Gee was very much the latter, and we’d barely finished our Aperol Spritzes when our mains were brought to the table. But again, I found I didn’t mind. There’s a certain magic in being in a nice room where everybody seems to be having a marvellous time and as I’ve already said, the last two and a half years haven’t had enough of it. 

Zoë’s pollo al gorgonzola was delicious. It’s another reference dish (she had it, for instance, when we visited Newbury’s charming Mio Fiore) and you can argue that it’s a pretty basic choice but there’s still an alchemy to doing it well. Everything was present and correct here: a generous chicken breast, cooked spot on, some crispy-edged potatoes and the thing it’s all about – an awful lot of creamy sauce chock full of mushrooms and honking with the salty funk of blue cheese. 

Done well there are few nicer things to eat on a Friday night, and this was definitely done well. It was decent value at eighteen pounds, too, although it could have stood to lose the unnecessary salad. We’d ordered some courgette fries on the side, but for my money they were a little limp and lacking the crispness they needed.

Ordinarily I’d make a beeline for my usual, a pizza with anchovies, capers and olives. But I wanted to renew my acquaintance with arguably Papa Gee’s most iconic dish, the pizza Sofia Loren (there’s a picture of her on the wall, along with one of Maradona, Napoli’s favourite adopted son). It comes topped with red onion, crumbled sausage meat, pepperoni and red onions and it truly is a force of nature, as far as a dish can be. 

Every element on it worked perfectly together – the sausage lent a little nip of what I thought was fennel, the pepperoni was the workhorse, all crisped at the perimeter, dimpled with a little dab of oil in the middle, the onions had exactly the right amount of sweetness and bite. There was chilli in there, too, and it felt like it had been mixed with the tomato base to give a slowly building heat rather than chilli bombs all over the place. I sense that Papa Gee spent some time getting this pizza right and the remaining fifteen years or so not fucking with it at all, and I liked it a great deal. 

I also liked how haphazard it was – Papa Gee tops pizzas as he would like to eat them, a gastronomic “do unto others”, and there’s no margin counting or rationing like you’d see at the likes of Franco Manca, with your regulation six pieces of chorizo spaced at regular intervals. To continue with the comparisons, I’d say Papa Gee’s pizza is up there with Buon Appetito, its West Reading peer. Although Buon Appetito’s base maybe has the edge, even if Papa Gee’s menu charmingly says that the dough is “left to levitate for 24 hours!”

Desserts were slightly anticlimactic, though by no means terrible. Zoë enjoyed her tiramisu – more boozy, more sponge-heavy than many we’ve tried lately. But I still enjoyed it, and I got to try more of it than usual because she was replete with carbs. My cannolo was probably the most disappointing bit of the meal – the shell was all bend and no snap, and it felt a little bit past its best. Maybe that’s what happens when you order one at nine o’clock at night. But the core of ricotta, chocolate and a few nubbins of candied orange still had a lot going for it, as did the shot of amaro I sipped away at afterwards.

Although I’ve singled out Ihor – possibly just because it was so nice to see him again – service at Papa Gee is definitely an ensemble effort. There were three wait staff looking after a relatively compact room and they clearly work as a team with good humour and an impressive work ethic, and I felt from start to finish like they had many returning customers. They charmed the socks off them, so it’s hardly a surprise: I fully expect I’ll be a returning customer too. Our bill for three courses each, a couple of aperitivi each and mineral water came to just over a hundred pounds, and I had no argument with that.

This feels like the second time in quick succession that I’ve ended a review talking about central Reading’s much-missed Dolce Vita. Sorry about that. But it’s appropriate, because Papa Gee feels like the spiritual heir to Dolce Vita, more than anywhere I’ve been in Reading since it closed. Some of the food is very good, most of the rest is quite good and the worst of it is not bad. But I review restaurants, not meals, and to talk only about the dishes would be missing the point.

Because places like Papa Gee, and Dolce Vita for that matter, are about much more than food. They’re about the room, the welcome, the feelings they create and the memories they make. They’re about being part of something bigger than your table for one, for two or for four. All restaurants are, really. They should be, anyway. And that’s where Papa Gee comes into its own, because they’ve built something wonderful there. Of course they have: they’ve had over fifteen years to get really, really good at it. So perhaps Papa Gee has lost the capacity to surprise that it had when visited it back in 2015 but on my latest visit, as on my first, I left the restaurant wanting to tell all and sundry about the brilliant time I’d had. 

On the way out, in the hallway, I saw two framed pictures one above the other: paintings of the old and new premises, the past and the present. Silly perhaps, but it gave me the feels.

Papa Gee – 7.9
5 Prospect Street, Reading, RG4 8JB
0118 9483000

https://www.papagee.co.uk

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