Eating Around: Santi, Stratford, London

Based in Stratford’s up and coming East Village, Santi officially opened its doors in July 2016, offering lucky nearby residents an array of traditional Italian fodder, including thin-based pizza, seafood-drenched pasta, and more mozzarella than you can shake a stick at. When looking for a convenient and cosy restaurant to base a birthday meal with friends, Santi quickly cropped up as the ideal choice; in part because it is round the corner from my sister’s flat, partly because it’s on my way home back to Romford, and thirdly, because the food is absolutely delicious.

Santi is decorated very simply, letting its flamboyant food do all the talking. Stark white and dark wood form the majority of the colour theme, with the occasional flash of red to correspond with the restaurants logo dotted here and there. We were sat on a medium sized round table, ideal for nattering as a group, the table dressed with wine glasses and white linen napkins.

We ordered a couple of bottles of white wine to get the evening started, with my sister Jess taking the lead on the choice there. Our waiter presented us with a standard main menu each as well as a spring special menu, which boasted of being a whole three courses for a mere £20. We took a pick and mix approach, with some people sticking solely to the special menu – which did have a very impressive array of options for that style of menu – and some of us having two courses from the special menu and then one of the other courses from the main menu. Either way, this led to the food being very affordable all round, while still providing a pretty much entire menu to pick from. Win win if you ask me.

As we were reading the menu, a bread basket arrived at the table, alongside a dish of green and black olives, speared with cocktail sticks. Always a nice extra treat when table snacks arrive before you’ve even ordered, and so I tucked into the soft, thickly sliced bread with gusto, playing catch with the salty and small olives too.

While sipping the fresh and fruity wine, I ordered the scamorza impanata from the main menu for my starter. It sounded ideal for me, with breadcrumbed smoked mozzarella served with sautéed aubergines. This was probably one of my favourite starters that I have ever eaten to be honest with you. The mozzarella was stringy and soft, oozy out of the golden breadcrumbs when I cut the large discs on my plate. The cheese had a lovely creamy flavour that was accentuated by its sheer meltiness, the softness of the cheese working wonderfully with the crunchy breadcrumbs. The aubergines were cooked in a tomato style sauce to add a bit more variety to the texture of the dish, the squishy, earthy veg adding a hint of depth to the lighter cheese. The main components of the dish were sat on top of some decoratively scattered rocket, the edge of the plate drizzled in a balsamic glaze that I would have licked clean off the plate if manners would have permitted me to. I really loved this dish; everything worked together so well and you simply cannot go wrong with some form of melting cheese. The portion size was also more than generous with three large circles of cheese. This certainly whet the appetite healthily for what was to come.

For main course, I couldn’t resist my usual temptation treat food of Italian pizza, which I chose from the spring special menu. I went for the vesuvio, an interesting combo of salami, mozzarella and a fried egg on top. The pizza was a standard size with a generous scattering of salami spread across the circumference. The cheese on top looked a little sparing; however the wobbling fried egg on top was a thing of beauty. When I popped it’s golden yolk centre, it melted deliciously across my pizza, giving me extra to dunk my crispy yet doughy, wide crusts in. You really can’t go wrong with an Italian pizza in my view and this one was bellissimo.

I chose my dessert from the spring menu as well, opting for the cannoli siciliana to be brave and try something new. I’ve never had cannoli before, but I’ve heard the term tossed around plenty, so I was intrigued as to what it actually was and what it tasted like. I have to confess I was severely disappointed here, spending the duration of dessert jealously eyeing up Jess’s tiramisu. My cannoli featured a rolled up, thin biscuit, which had a similar taste to a brandy snap, yet it’s texture was very crisp and crunchy with real bite. It was meant to be filled with ricotta cheese, sugar and chocolate flakes, yet to me it tasted like sugar-sweet, liquid white icing sugar had just been poured inside, adding nothing to the flavour. The chocolate flakes could not be tasted in any way, shape or form. Although another decent portion size, I was really gutted by how bland and uninviting this dessert was. Next time, I’ll definitely go with my trusted dessert option.

Value for money is very apparent at Santi. There were five of us all together; we shared a couple of bottles of wine, and four of us had three courses, one person had two. Bearing in mind all that, we paid a puny £27 each. I couldn’t believe how cheap it was, considering both my starter and my main course were so tasty that I devoured them at warp speed. Our waiter was lovely as well, very polite yet chatty, efficiently serving our meal. We went on a Wednesday, so the restaurant as a whole was a bit quieter than I’m sure it would be on a weekend, however it had a very relaxed atmosphere and the food was lovely. I’d recommend a visit if you are passing by and need to put your feet up after hitting Westfields. Aperol spritz anyone?

Homeward Bound: Osteria Due Fratelli, Hornchurch, Essex

I’d been meaning to visit Osteria Due Fratelli for quite a while before I finally got around to booking a table. It always looked so welcoming, the family-run restaurant painted an alluringly inviting shade of post box red. As an independent Italian restaurant amidst the sea of nearby chain eateries such as Ask, Wildwood and Prezzo, I was also interested to see what Osteria Due Fratelli could possibly bring to the plate that could successfully hold up against these big, pizza-swinging rivals.

Inside, Osteria Due Fratelli continues the family-run vibe, with the décor reminding me of a country style kitchen. The bold splashes of iconic red were still present and correct, paired with a bright white, and finished with photographs in both black and white as well as colour, the frames eclectic and in different shapes and sizes.  The chairs had a worn and rustic look with a muted whitewash, paired against a hodgepodge of different sized tables in a variety of shapes and wood shades. My friends from my badminton club and I visited on a Saturday evening, so the atmosphere was bustling with the majority of the tables taken, however there wasn’t a rushed feel at all. It had the ambience of enjoyment, of friends relaxing together and revelling in each other’s company, of stretching a meal out because conversation is flowing.

We sat down at a rectangular table for four and ordered a bottle of house red to share. Despite just being the house beverage, it was a lovely red wine with a smooth consistency and a medium body that was fruity and not too heavy to drink. While we were musing the menu, a basket of rustic ciabatta style bread was brought to the table, the loaf cut into medium thick slices. With olive oil and balsamic vinegar already sitting on our table with the other condiments, I saw it as very necessary to pool first the oil and then the vinegar on top on my bread plate, before dunking my slice decadently in the slick on my side plate. This is one of my favourite things to do so having the bread brought to the table without prompting or asking was a nice added extra. The bread itself was very Italian, with a dark, chewy crust and a spongey, hole-filled centre – perfect for absorbing all the lovely oil.

Having loaded up on bread, I decided to skip starter, and focus my attention instead on main courses. Feeling in a pasta mood, I opted for the rigatoni amatriciana, which featured wide, cylindrical white pasta in a tomato, Napoli based sauce, finished off with pancetta, onions, red wine, basil, parmesan and pecorino cheeses.

Firstly I was pleased by the portion size; sometimes pasta plates come up minutely small for a main meal and it can be very frustrating to fish around for your pieces of pasta while your companions are spearing a gutsy steak. So tick there for portion size. Next up, I liked the fact that the pancetta was cut into chunky cube-like strips. Pancetta can be served in niggly little cubes that aren’t worth the chasing in pasta sauces, however the pancetta in this meal was really something you could get your teeth stuck in to and enjoy. It was also nice and lean with a real gammon flavour, so that’s a thumbs up for me. The tomato sauce was pretty standard to be honest with you, and I wouldn’t say it had anything majorly different to traditional tomato sauces from other Italian restaurants. Combined, it was a really lovely pasta dish and I it certainly hit my pasta craving nicely.

Dessert couldn’t be anything else other than tiramisu to be honest with you. As we ordered more red wine, I got stuck in to my large, rectangular portion. Tiramisu is one of those desserts that will be completely different in every, single restaurant that you eat it in, and Osteria Due Fratelli’s version was very cakey, with the creamy mascarpone being quite dense. Sprinkled with cocoa powder and drizzled with a sticky, dark chocolate sauce, this coffee dessert is always a nice conclusion to a meal, especially when you get a generous portion like this one.

Now, since I was out for a birthday meal with friends from my badminton club, we may have been a bit looser with the alcohol than normal. We completely indulged, ordering expresso martinis that arrived in unusually shaped cocktail glasses, the hard-hitting coffee flavoured cocktail delivering on expectations there. Furthermore, we also ordered liquor coffees, the rich black coffee underneath steeped in our alcohol of choice before being topped with a silky, flat layer of cold cream. I continued my coffee theme and opted for Tia Maria in mine. After another round of wine, the restaurant brought us over limoncello shots, this feisty, firepowered lemon flavoured liquor succeeding once more to blow my socks off!

As we continued the evening drinking in the restaurant rather than moving on to a bar, our bill was obviously more expensive as a result. We ended up paying around £45 per person, which I don’t think was too bad in the grand scheme of things bearing in mind how much we had to drink overall! The food itself was very reasonably priced; one member of our group had a ribeye steak main course which was £16. After arriving at 7pm, we were the last to leave the restaurant at nearly midnight, almost being kicked out by staff as they finished stacking seats and taking off aprons. For a relaxed and uncomplicated evening out, give Osteria Due Fratelli a go. The food wasn’t mind-blowing and the service was patchy due to the restaurant being busy, however the food was nice and the atmosphere is really relaxed.

Il Castelletto, Holborn, London

Set Menu:

  • Location: Il Castelletto, 17 Bury Place, London, WC1A 2JB (nearest tube station is Holborn)
  • Date of Visit: Thursday 23rd February 2017
  • Time of Table:30pm
  • Deal Bought From: Living Social
  • Deal Price: £19 for Two
  • Dinner Companion: Twin sister, Jess

Getting More for your Money?

This dinner deal includes:

  • Two Starters
  • Two Main Courses
  • Two Desserts
  • For Two People

What we ate…

Katie:

  • Starter: Insalata Caprese
  • Main: Risotto Vegetariano
  • Dessert: Tiramisu

Jess:

  • Starter: Minestrone Soup
  • Main: Tagliatelle Mare E Monti
  • Dessert: Tiramisu

What we drank…

  • Bottle of Costal upo Illuminati (not included)

What did we think?

With a love of all things Italian, when I spied this fantastic Living Social deal, just a mere 10 minute walk from the front door of my office, I couldn’t resist snapping it up and inviting my fellow foodie and twin sister to share the experience with me. Located down a peaceful side street off the main concourse of Tottenham Court Road, Il Castelletto has a real ‘hidden gem’ style vibe. Its exterior was all prim and neatness with a lick of deep forest green paint and tidy awning ballooning over the front door. Traditional checkered tablecloths adorned outdoor tables; however it was the inviting, large arch style windows showcasing a beckoning interior that had us licking our lips in anticipation.

Upon entering, you are enveloped by a sense of warmth, family and comfort, the atmosphere a pure invitation to simply unwind after a hard day, glass of wine in hand. With flickering candlelight gently illuminating the very small, yet strangely not poky, restaurant, we were placed at an intimate table for two. As I sat down, I admired the yellow brick decorated walls, checking out the impressively golden gilded mirror opposite my seat. Spinning around in the wooden dining chair, I cast my eye over the traditional and well-stocked bar opposite the main entrance. Above the bar, neatly decorated blackboards detailed the wine list, while further blackboards on the walls explained the daily specials, including some very well priced lunch deals. To me, Il Castelletto felt as if you were visiting an old friend that you hadn’t seen in a while, merely slotting in where you left off and instantly relaxing into something comfortable and well-loved.

Our deal was a complete bargain at £19 for two people, so I was expecting a set menu. The restrictiveness of the menu however took me aback briefly, with many of the items being incredibly similar, so although the menu looked extensive from afar, the choice itself was much more limited. Getting over my initial disappointment, I began to look at what I was actually going to order. With a love of mozzarella, the insalata caprese seemed like a good start, due to doorstep slices of the pale, creamy white cheese, colourfully layered against equally thick rounds of bright red tomato. Further decorated with little piles of rocket, for me it was the balsamic dressing that really made the dish. I love balsamic at the best of times, but it works exceptionally well with the soft mozzarella, the zing of the vinegar a pure juxtaposition to the dense creaminess of the cheese. Nice and light, this simple yet winning starter whet the appetite very nicely.

I did struggle to pick a main course, as nothing immediately grabbed my fancy. I decided to have risotto, as it’s something I don’t usually have at home because my husband isn’t a huge fan of this gooey rice-based dish. If I’m going to have a risotto, it may as well be done by the experts. I chose the vegetarian one, and boy was this good. Firstly, the portion size was lovely. I am normally fearful of selecting a risotto when at chain Italian restaurants, as often two tablespoons later you’ve finished your dinner before everyone else; however this was not the case at Il Castelletto, and I was able to enjoy a really brilliant and full bowl. My risotto featured a great mix of vegetables, such as peppers, broccoli, mushrooms and carrots, all steeped in a fantastic tomato sauce that inundated both the vegetables and rice. The sauce had a real garlic heat to it, which massively enhanced the flavour. The rice was perfectly cooked and soft, the vegetables also cooked to tender and therefore to my liking; I’m not really an al dente kinda girl. Ensuring to get lashings of grated Parmesan on top, I really enjoyed this risotto, even if it wasn’t something I would ordinarily pick. Stealing a bite of my sister’s pasta however has me gagging to return just to order a pasta dish, as her tagliatelle was melt in the mouth in true Italian fashion.

For dessert, when in an Italian restaurant, there is simply only one option – the famed coffee-soaked and cream laden speciality tiramisu. Now I have eaten a lot of tiramisu in my time (please don’t judge), and no two restaurants ever serve it the same; it’s one of those things! To me, that makes the dessert even more special and unexpected. Il Castelletto’s version of this dessert was much more cake like, served in a rectangular slab, again with a generous portion. The mascarpone was thick set and unctuous, the chocolate drizzle sauce a nice added touch, and the coffee flavour spot on. All in all, a lovely take on tiramisu.

To accompany our meal, we went for a mid-price bottle of white wine. Usefully, the wine menu features flavour descriptions, so we were able to better select something that we would like. The wine was light, fruity and very drinkable. At under £20 for the bottle, it was also very affordable.

Although our food came quickly, I wouldn’t say the service was spot on. Some of the other tables seemed to be having difficulty in getting their food. The servers tended to clear your plates and give you the next course at the same time, which is unusual, but it didn’t really matter as we were still getting our food. Our meal was delivered pretty promptly so I have no complaints there. Staff were polite but not over warm or chatty.

I have to confess, I fell in love with Il Castelletto. I adored its relaxed atmosphere, the really delicious food, and the whole package really. Copping a glance at the full price menu, it still seems like a very affordable venue, although on this occasion we just paid a tenner each to cover the wine, as our £19 vouchers covered the price for our three course meal each. I can’t wait to go back and try a few more menu items…any volunteers?

Spaccanapoli, Soho, London

img_1338Set Menu:

  • Location: Spaccanapoli, Unit 8, Central St. Giles, London, WC2H 8AG (nearest tube station is Tottenham Court Road)
  • Date of Visit: Wednesday 1st February 2017
  • Time of Table:30pm
  • Deal Bought From: Groupon
  • Deal Price: £19.95 for Two
  • Dinner Companion: Twin sister, Jess

Getting More for your Money?

This dinner deal includes:

  • Two Starters
  • Two Main Courses
  • Dessert
  • For Two People

img_1340What we ate…

Katie:

  • Starter: Roasted vegetables with balsamic dressing
  • Main: Salami pizza
  • Dessert: Chocolate filled mini croissants (sharing dessert)

Jess:

  • Starter: Salami and Parma Ham
  • Main: Roasted vegetable pizza
  • Dessert: Chocolate filled mini croissants (sharing dessert)

 What we drank…

  • Two glasses of house white wine
  • A bottle of house white wine (not included)

What did we think?

img_1341Spaccanapoli is like a little glass Italian island, hidden between shiny sky scrapers and the flashy lights of bigger, bolder restaurants. Its neon red, handwritten style signage stands out against the completely glass walls that form this cubic shaped restaurant, plonked in the centre of a smuggled-away side street off London’s Tottenham Court Road, and potential diners can peer curiously through the transparent walls to catch a glimpse of what they might be missing out on.

I’m not going to beat around the bush here, it’s a small place and the square, white tables are crammed in. A horseshoe shaped, high backed sofa, covered in black material forms one side of the seating arrangements, tables placed closely together following the curve, and then dining chairs opposite. The deli and coffee bar situated across the back of the restaurant indicates the café-style day job and catering for the time-rushed lunch crowd, however of an evening, the lights are dimmed and Spaccanapoli takes on a much more relaxed vibe.

img_1342Attending with my sister Jess for a girly catch up, we were both flabbergasted by the cheapness of this Groupon deal, where we would get three courses each for under £20. It certainly sounded too good to be true so I was interested to see how the food stacked up. We were given a special Groupon set menu to pick from, which although didn’t have masses of choice, still had key Italian favourites to pick from. For starters, I decided to go for the antipasti style vegetables, which included aubergine, courgette and tomatoes to name a few. Stacked in three neat towers, my vegetables were served in a traditional antipasti way, with a very soft, yielding texture and a slightly chargrilled flavour. With a dash of balsamic dressing hesitatingly splashed on top, this helped to intensify the flavour and give the dish some added zing. I found it light to eat, tasty and a nice way to whet the appetite.

img_1344I have more than just a fondness for Italian pizza, so when I saw that pizzas had their own mini section on the set menu, my eye line was irresistibly drawn to this option. In the end, I went for a salami topped pizza. I love having Italian meats on pizza as I find the extra fat oozes out when it’s being cooked and generally adds a fantastic flavour to the pizza. Although the pepperoni used was spread rather sparingly across my lovely large pizza, I still thoroughly enjoyed it. The pizza was a generous size; the cheese bubbly, hot and stringy to pull apart; the crust not overcooked at all, instead puffing up delightfully and pretty much hitting the nail on the head when it comes to pizza bases. This my friends, was a proper Italian pizza, and it was a joy to eat. And I made sure to eat every last slice!

So far, so good. However, with dessert as the last hurdle, here is where Spaccanapoli came completely unstuck and let the side down massively. As you all know, I absolutely love dessert, with an unnatural, often custard-induced passion. For me, it is an important aspect of my dinner and the dessert conclusion can make or break an evening. With this in mind, I was sorely disappointed to not even get to pick my own dessert. There was no dessert menu and instead, our waiter brought over one small plate that had two mini flaky pastry parcels on it. These croissant shaped delicacies looked like leftover snacks from the coffee bar rather than a proper dessert, and I felt completely hard done by, especially when I saw a portion of tiramisu sail past. One pastry was filled with white chocolate, and the second was filled with milk chocolate, and while they were tasty, they were most definitely treats to have was a steaming cappuccino, and not a dessert finish to a three course meal. After such a lovely starter and a mouth-watering main course, this dessert was such a disappointment that we simply had to order more wine.img_1339

The waiting staff were all very friendly and attentive and to have a two and a quarter course meal for £10 per person is certainly not to be sneered at in London’s heaving and expensive streets. My favourite dish was by far the pizza, as it really excelled. I would go again mainly out of curiosity to see if a dessert menu does exist and also what the normal prices and menu looked like. We were given no option to upgrade anything and the waiting staff didn’t promote any upsells, so our only expense was our drinks which was completely fine. The house white by the way was refreshing and absolutely lovely, so nothing wrong in that quarter. Spaccanapoli is only a stone’s throw from my office, so I will still bear in it mind but if you are going for this particular deal, I warn you now, dessert is a let down.

Holiday Munchies: Carluccio’s, Brindleyplace, Birmingham

P1050264With a passion for Italy larger than any meatball, I am always on the hunt for new Italian restaurants to whet the appetite. Having stumbled across various venues of the Carluccio’s chain in London, when I spotted a branch in Birmingham whilst away for the weekend, I couldn’t resist booking a table. Having already chowed down on sweet treats from their deli / patisserie front of house section, I was keen to try their main food selection, to see whether it was just as delectable and moreish as their wonderful sweet selection.

Visiting on a Sunday night at around 8.00pm, the restaurant was surprisingly quiet with a gentle hum of relaxed background chatter and the occasional laugh as small groups of friends and family unwound before the working week started again. I found that Carluccio’s was styled in a very similar fashion to other big known Italian chains, such as Wildwoods and Ask – they all seems to utilise pale wooden shelves that hoard stacks of dried pasta packets and jars of artichokes and sundried tomatoes, all artfully arranged and presented. This decorative store cupboard look was paired with minimalist silver bricks, glossy mirrors and plenty of stark white walls, attempting to accentuate the space of the slightly ‘z’ shaped room. It felt light and airy and it still looked lovely, I just didn’t feel that it looked very unique.P1050265

We had a fantastic table though I have to say. Next to one of these arrays of shelves was an orange cushioned sofa that followed the line of the wall. Tucked in the corner was a circular table where both guests could sit on the sofa seating, more next to each other than opposite. Both comfortable and cosy with a great view of the rest of the restaurant, it really was a great spot to perch. Placing our drinks order, I attempted to ask for a glass of their specialty white wine – it sounded so different with orange blossom tones – however they had run out, so I had to quickly scan the menu to pick a second choice. I went for the Planeta La Segreta Bianco, which hailed from Sicily and promised rich, aromatic and fruity flavours. Sipping this bold white, I loved the full bodied flavour that was both intense and fruity while also being refreshing and very drinkable.

P1050266For starters, we decided to share the new Bread Tin. Literally presented in a rustic loaf tin next to a dish of olive oil blobbed with balsamic vinegar was a selection of rolls for us to rip in to. Two breadstick spears stuck out the top as they were tucked in among a range of crusty rolls. There were small, round rolls and also triangular shaped rolls, stuffed with green and black olives. Although I loved the extra flavour of these rolls, I found all of the roll varieties to be a bit too crusty on the outside, although they were like ciabatta on the inside, with large air pockets. I just made sure to do plenty of dunking to soften them up slightly. We did had one square slab of focaccia which was wonderfully soft and bouncy in comparison. We munched our way through most of the rolls, although I made sure to save one to have with our main courses.

P1050267As a traditional Italian style restaurant, there was not a pizza in sight so it was all about the pasta, the antipasti boards and the meat dishes. In the mood for pasta, this was the section of the menu I was instantly drawn to. With a surprisingly small amount of dishes available, I decided to pick something a bit different and go for the Venison Tortelloni, which is basically a form of filled pasta, like ravioli. Although I enjoyed my dinner, I was a little disappointed and half wished I had ordered something else, such as Dan’s divine looking Spaghetti Carbonara for example. The pasta itself was delicious – it was so silky and cooked to perfection, so you couldn’t doubt the quality there. The filling however was a little bland for my taste. It was meant to be cooked in wine, however I didn’t really get those flavours coming through and I couldn’t even place the game notes of venison. It tasted more just like a meaty paste filling, which was still tasty but not at all what I was expecting. I was hoping for a stronger and more rounded flavour that would stand up to the pasta. The dish was served in a pool of melted butter I think, so keeping it stripped back and P1050269simple – this was great to dip my leftover roll in once I had finished eating the pasta. The pasta portion was also quite small in my opinion, so didn’t take me too long to polish off. I was even able to help Dan finish his carbonara – I particularly liked the crispy cubes of bacon that cut through the cheesy sauce.

Dessert on the other hand completely knocked my socks off with how completely lovely it was. I chose a chocolate bread and butter pudding, served with a vanilla cream. It was absolutely amazing and I would eat it all day if I could. The bread and butter pudding was made with some form of croissant, so it had a wonderfully flaky and buttery texture that enhanced the sweetness of the dish. In between these pastry / bread layers were rows of gooey chocolate that looked like it had come from melted chocolate chips as some chips still remained tucked in the sauce. The vanilla cream turned out to be a thin, pale custard that was very light to eat and flecked with seeds from the vanilla pods. The whole dish just worked in perfect harmony, the flavours and textures providing the ideal combination. It was just lovely and my favourite P1050268course by far. Dan’s dessert was also a winner, as he chose the meringue, served with raspberries and passion fruit and cream in an eton mess style dessert. Stealing some meringue, it was wonderfully textured with some pieces being chewy and sticking to your teeth while other pieces crumbled with a satisfying crunch as you bit into it. The fruity cream tied the dish together nicely.

I enjoyed my visit to Carluccio’s and I would return – I have my eye on the Saltimbocca to try next time although I love the idea of the big antipasti sharing platters too. No matter what I would have for mains though, dessert is clearly this place’s specialty and one they carry off with flair and attention to detail. I loved the fact that my bread and butter pudding was a classic that had been given an Italian makeover so that it was completely different, yet still within my comfort zone. It really was something special. The service was good also and the prices not astronomical so certainly worth a second visit in my book!

P1050263

Homeward Bound: Bella Italia, Southend-on-Sea, Essex

P1030575With a penchant for meaty pizzas, a birthday food fest that needed arranging and an impending hen holiday in Rome, it was only natural that I went Italian when celebrating my 25th this March with my girlfriends. I have long looked curiously at chain Bella Italia so I was pleased to finally have an excuse to book a table, opting to phone the Southend branch for a late lunch one Saturday afternoon around my birthday. Although they seemed to have no notification of my booking when I arrived with my group, it was luckily quiet enough that this didn’t matter, and we were still seated with ease, ready to chow down on some delicious Italian grub.

P1030578The ambience of the Southend restaurant was very much elegantly rustic, with stylish nods at an Italian countryside feel, for example a blackboard listing fruit and vegetable market prices. The venue seemed to be divided into varying dining sections utilising stripped wood to section off different areas. Terracotta and peach tones dominated, contrasting the heavy wood presence but creating a really homely yet classy feel, with large chandeliers dipping down to provide a musky light. Assorted jars and bottles served as decoration, homage to the Italian’s love of food and a feature in many Italian venues.

P1030579Settling down at our table of six, we started with the drinks menu, deciding on a bottle of Trebbiano to kick things off, the fresh citrus flavours accompanied by tones of apples and pears. In for the long haul, this was a three courser for sure, so I excitedly began browsing the menu for options. Starters I actually managed to pick pretty quickly for indecisive little me, opting for the Polpette, which is basically little pork and beef meatballs that are baked in a small dish, drenched in a thick tomato based sauce. Topped with cheese and a rustic hunk of ciabatta for dunking purposes. I have to say, this was probably one of my favourite starters that I have eaten, and I’m not usually a starters kinda girl. I love meatballs and these ones were cooked perfectly and faintly spiced which added to the flavour and also enhanced the passata-style sauce. The ciabatta looked a bit like a random afterthought just P1030583thrown on top of the dish, but it was a decent size to allow me to eat with my meatballs and mop up the tasty classic Italian sauce too. It reminded me of a bolognaise type sauce actually, in both consistency and flavour.

For my main course, I can never resist a large, juicy calzone – a great spin on the classic Italian pizza, so I decided to choose the Diavola option, although I have to say I liked the sound of almost all of the calzones! This one though contained N’uja sausage and pepperoni, so salami like meats, as well as chicken, bell peppers, green chillies and onions, served with an arrabbiata sauce, so again tomato based with a fiery bite to complement the chilli. In my opinion, this calzone was distinctly average, and although I enjoyed it, as I enjoy a calzone, I really wasn’t overly impressed. Firstly, the portion size seemed small for a calzone, as they normally come up huge – and I was starving! Secondly, the filling was incredibly sparse, so although the flavours worked well together, you couldn’t actually have a mouthful which combined them all. Meat was especially thin on the ground, as if the chef has been scrimping. I know a calzone is a folded up pizza, so toppings can be in short supply, but calzones are usually more full, so this was rather disappointing not to find more of the ingredients held within the soft and thin pizza dough P1030582casing. The pizza dough itself was delicious and just to my liking. One thing I did like about the main course was the fun plates – once I had mopped up my meal, I found a funny slogan ‘Just like mamma makes it’ painted onto the plate in swirled green handwriting. It was a great element of surprise and made me smile at the end of a very so-so main course.

At this point, more wine was in order, and since they had run out of the Trebbiano, we settled on one of my favourites instead, a Sauvignon Blanc, which turned out to be a lot nicer than the Trebbiano, so a result there!  It had a softer texture to drink and was less harsh, also with sweeter undercurrents.

For dessert, I couldn’t take my eyes off the Cookie Dough Lava Cake, a chocolate chip cookie cake with oozyP1030585 chocolate sauce centre, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and drizzles of caramel sauce. This did not disappoint in the slightest, and I thoroughly enjoyed this dessert, tucking in with gusto. The cake itself was moist and studded with large chocolate chip pieces, spearing the dense little cake. The chocolate centre was a pleasant surprise as it leaked slightly when cut, quickly being absorbed in to the surrounding cake. The natural vanilla flavoured ice cream was the perfect accompaniment, acting as a tool to help peel the caramel sauce from the plate, the flavours all working really well in sync with each other. The cake was a nice size too – I was worried it was going to be a little on the thin side, but it came up rather beefy which was great, as I wanted to tuck in with relish. Maybe not a classic Italian dish, but using popular winning flavours, it was always going to be good!

P1030574After the food, I ordered my customary cappuccino.  It was presented nicely and was lovely coffee, so a nice way to conclude the meal. But would I come to Bella Italia again? The menu has a fantastic array of choice, and mulling the online menu a few days beforehand, I was stumped as to what I would eventually pick as I have about five must-try dishes on my list! Despite this, when I received my meal, I was a little let down by the main course, not that I didn’t like it, but I was expecting better. My sister’s pasta dish looked delicious and made me half wish I had gone for the shredded duck pasta instead.

P1030580The service in the Southend venue could also do with brushing up on. Although I had made my reservation on the phone a good month in advance, the waiter at the front of house couldn’t find my reservation and seemed constantly confused about what I was trying to tell him. Not a good start. The waiting staff on the whole were friendly, however they weren’t efficient at taking drinks orders or ensuring that we stayed topped up – our designated driver for example had to ask numerous times just to get one orange juice. We were there in the late afternoon and the restaurant was empty, so not much excuse as to why the service wasn’t up to scratch. Prices were reasonable and what you would expect from a chain, so no complaints there. I’d be keen to visit Bella Italia again to tick off some more of the dishes that I fancy trying, although I think I would visit the Lakeside venue which is a bit nearer home for me and may have better service. We’ll have to wait and see! On the whole though, tasty food and great flavours – I just needed more of it!

P1030584The Dinner Dates Opinion:

Here’s what my friend Robyn made of our meal out:

“Walking into Bella Italia, there was an obvious rustic feel to the restaurant and a very relaxed atmosphere which may have been due to the fact that we did not arrive at peak dinner time. The service also felt extremely relaxed, to the point of being a little slow but the staff were all friendly and polite nonetheless. For a starter, I ordered the Insalata Rosso which consisted of tomatoes, onion, olives and a dressing – good to get the taste buds going but nothing particularly special (but really, what do you expect from a salad?). For main course, I designed my own pizza, adding my choice of two toppings to a standard margherita (chilli and spinach). The pizza itself was delicious and looked homemade which I would imagine, to quote a popular advert here, was just ‘like mama makes’. Overall, the food was enjoyable, the service was satisfactory – but really, I think it’s the company that makes a meal… and let me tell you, I had some rather incredible dinner guests.”

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