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
Delivery available: via Just Eat, Deliveroo, UberEats