Homeward Bound: Villagio, Basildon, Essex

Despite being an Essex girl for my whole life, there are many patches of the county I have yet to explore when it comes to mu culinary adventures. One such patch is Basildon, an area I am certainly more interested in now the hubby and I have it in our sights as a potential destination for our next home. I will certainly require good quality eating hot spots nearby so a best friend’s hen do meal at local Italian restaurant Villagio, at the Festival Way recreation park, seemed like a good starting point.

Light, bright and airy, wall to wall mirrors helps to make the restaurant feel roomier than it is, although lashings of sunny yellow paint also create a spacious warmth. With mustard yellow tones, button studded upholstery and decorative chandeliers, Villagio felt comfortable, family-friendly and casual, although we also felt perfectly at home being dressed up to the nines for our Saturday meal out.

Sitting across from another of my best friends, and a fellow food-lover, we decided the best course of action would be to share a couple of starters, to enable us to tuck into and try more food at, let’s face it, a restaurant we probably wouldn’t be visiting again in the immediate near future. Therefore, we opted for the garlic pizza bread with mozzarella and caramalised onions and a portion of meatballs. The garlic bread was really delicious; it was the size of a small 10 inch round pizza I reckon, with gooey creamy coloured blobs of the melted mozzarella generous and thickly covering the majority of the pizza, the deep brown caramlised onions cutting through the dense cheese with a sharp sweetness that worked really nicely. We all know this is a dream team flavour combo but it’s great that the ratio of cheese to onion was spot on too. The garlic was very subtle, so I would define this as more of a cheese and onion bread rather than a garlic bread; personally I would have liked it to have more of a punchy garlic kick however my bestie preferred the lower garlic payoff. I also liked the fact that the crust of the garlic bread was doughy and was thicker than you would typically get. I don’t much like it when you get a garlic bread or pizza crust that simply snaps like a poppadom; this is just flavourless and pointless in my opinion. So thumbs up for an actual crust.

With our garlic bread, we also had a white bowl of five meatballs, drenched in a chunky tomato and garlic sauce, sprinkled with grated cheese and served with two narrow grilled strips of ciabatta. The meatballs were lovely; fairly small but nice and meaty. They would have been dry without the sauce, however there was more sauce hidden in the dish than I first suspected, so it was nice to continually dunk both the meatballs, small bits of ciabatta and our garlic bread crusts in the sauce. It was a standard tomato sauce, thick and chunky with simple garlic tones. All in all, a good and simple start to the meal.

For my main course, I decided to opt for the butternut squash risotto; two things I cannot convince the husband to consume so I saw this as a great opportunity to chow down on foods that I wouldn’t necessarily get at home. Served in a beige speckled pasta dish, the risotto rice was sticky, clumping together in true risotto fashion. Luckily, it was cooked more than the traditional al dente, which I prefer, although the parsley scattered on the top was overzealous for my taste buds. The butternut squash was cut into small cubes, and stirred through the risotto along with peas and cabbage, Parmesan cheese grated on top for that final flourish. It was cooked nicely, the flavours worked well together, and it was a great little dish. As I was being greedy, I also had a side dish, which is typically quite unlike me until I saw two words: truffle oil. We all know my partiality to anything truffle so when I saw that a version of the house fries featured my favourite truffle oil and Parmesan combo, I ignored all good sense telling me no and I just ordered them. I’m glad I did though as they were yummy. The truffle was subtle but still a noticeable flavour and the cheese was another fun accent. The chips themselves were spot on too; I’m usually a chunky chip girl but these were so moreish is munched my way easily through the whole dish. Soft and fluffy on the inside and crunchy on the outside and loaded with the extra flavours. A real win-win side dish.

Although I was pretty full by this point, dessert is always going to be a no-brainer. Hence, I decided to stick with something fun and Italian and have the banana and nutella calzone. Served as a folded over crepe, sausage type shape, this was a lot smaller than I was expecting and to be honest, the filling wasn’t exactly present and correct. The pizza dough was soft and the right thickness for the dish, but the banana chunks were cut up very small so that they got quite mashed up, and although the blobs of nutella were divine with the pizza dough of the calzone, I wouldn’t say there was enough filling in general and it also wasn’t combined very well so it was more like a bite of banana and then a bite of nutella. The calzone was served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, nothing to write home about, and a weird drizzle of squeezy chocolate sauce outlining two sides of my square plate. It was a nice dessert and I did like it, but it was a bit of a lacklustre version. I feel Villagio could do more with it to make it more of a show-stopper dessert item.

Since I was driving, I stuck to Villagio’s still lemonade to drink, which was refreshing and had a satisfying lemon twang. The service was pretty standard, although I think there were some new waiting staff serving our table, so sometimes getting the food out and to the right person was time-consuming and I kept having to ask for cutlery. For my three courses and two soft drinks, I paid £33.20 which is ok price wise. I was expecting it to be cheaper considering I didn’t drink for once, but I must have blown the saving on having a side and an extra course! I did enjoy my meal on the whole and it was a friendly little spot to find.

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Holiday Munchies: Cielo Italian, Brindleyplace, Birmingham

Birmingham may not be typically associated with romantic restaurants and date night hotspots, however when my husband Dan took me out for a meal on our recent visit up north (we are from Essex, most things are north to us), we found a restaurant that certainly ticks every box I have when it comes to a slap up meal out. Despite the whitewash of snow, we donned our glad rags and headed to Cielo, an Italain restaurant situated on the fabulously named Oozells Square, in sophisticated social scene Brindleyplace.

Large windows make up the majority of the restaurant’s two exterior facing walls, so its opulent interior provided a warm beacon of streamlined white and cream decor for us to aim for as we battled against snow and wind. We maneuvered around the exterior, encased seating area as despite heat lamps underneath umbrella-style awning, I doubt anyone would brave the weather to snuggle under the blankets of the sofa seats today. As we entered, I was struck by how busy the restaurant was. Granted it was a Saturday, however our table was booked for 8.45pm, so quite late really, however the restaurant was absolutely alive with rich and hearty Italian laughter, large groups of family and friends dolled up, numerous waiting staff buzzing about as if charged with electricity. I instantly loved the vibe of the atmosphere; it was as if Cielo was celebrating the weekend itself.

The decor was a little bit try-to-hard in terms of wanting to be classy and elegant, and although it was almost there, in my opinion it could have done with a splash of accent colour to break up the consistent cream of everything. Mirrors on the walls reflected the space from the opposite windows to increase the notion of space, however one thing I did like was the armchair style seating. Dan and I were led to a small table for two by the closed off waiting area and we each nestled into a plush cream leather armchair, getting nice and comfy. Cielo certainly felt as if it was well-loved by locals, in particular for special occasions, so I was getting very impatient to sample some of their food for myself.

We started off by choosing a bottle of white wine for us to share, opting for the Domaine La Prade sauvignon blanc, which boasted of green apple, pink grapefruit and elderflower flavours. It was actually refreshingly fruity, yet soft and light to drink so it was ideal to cut through the carbohydrate and protein-laden feast we were planning. For starters, I chose the spaghetti carbonara, made with smoked pancetta, egg yolks, white wine, cream and grated Grana Padano cheese. Of course, I had extra Parmesan grated on top as well. Firstly, I loved the pasta bowl it came in. Traditionally a deep bowl, it was shaped to have one side lower than the other so it looked as if it was sitting on a slant, and almost provided an easy access point for me to eat my spaghetti from! The pasta itself was well cooked, which is good as I don’t like al dente pasta, and I loved the creaminess of the sauce paired with the salty mini cubes of pancetta. It was carbonara, but a carbonara of kings. The hubby went for prawns, which were lightly battered and served with a fresh mango-based salad and a sweet chilli dip. Although initially dubious about the mango, he soon started raving about the magical combination of flavours.

For my main course, I think I consumed one of the best dishes I have ever eaten out. By the size of this blog alone, I think we can all gather what a compliment this is. I ordered the tournedo rossini, which was basically an incredibly hefty and large fillet steak, a wonderful chunk of meat that I asked cooked medium rare. This was sat on a neat cylinder of sauteed garlic spinach, while on top of the angus beef was enriched duck liver and thin wafers of black truffle. The whole dish sat in a swimming pool of rich and dark red wine jus. This dish was undoubtedly all about the wow factor and I simply cannot praise it highly enough. The beef itself was sheer quality, thickly cut and buttery soft. This was a match made in heaven when dipped in the gorgeously deep and rich sauce, which had a slight sweet and balsamic-like tone to it. I was expecting pate for the duck liver, however I had a poke in the dim, atmospheric lighting of the restaurant and deduced that I thought it actually was liver. I hadn’t tried liver before so it was a learning curve, yet luckily it was only a small portion and it was sat on a square of olive oil drenched bread. When all covered in the jus as well, it was hard not to like. It was certainly meaty and a different texture to most meats, being slightly spongy in comparison, however it did not take away from the dish at all. I loved finding the shards of black truffle as I adore truffle, and anything black truffle in particular sends me wistfully daydreaming about my time in Florence, were food is the altar at which Florence locals worship and truffle is a much more normal foodstuff. Truffle works well with meat so I enjoyed pairing it with both the steak and the liver. The spinach added a vibrancy of green to the plate and I really enjoyed the heavy garlic hit encompassed in the buttery cooked leaves. All in all, this dish was something very special, and I could think about it all day long.

Dan, on the other hand, ordered a pasta dish for his main course that was full of thick chunks of chorizo in a tomato based sauce that coated his penne. We also shared a bread board between us, which featured triangles and squares of different flavoured breads. One of the ones I sampled was studded with olives while the second had a tomato and Mediterranean vibe to the taste. After our main courses, we were so full. The portion sizes so far were more than generous, and where the food was just so delectable, I just couldn’t leave a drop. I ate slowly to try and fit more in! It was a squeeze but no steak was left behind and I polished off my plate, much to my stomach’s adoration and discomfort.

Dessert was always going to be a foregone conclusion. With our first two courses leaving us in raptures of Italian stupor, there was no way I was leaving without trying a portion of tiramisu. Boy it was lovely to look at and even greater to eat! Served in a neat circular stack, the dessert was wonderfully creamy with lashings of layered mascarpone and coffee-drenched sponge, the top dusted thoroughly with coco powder and the plate scattered with finely chopped nuts for added crunch. The tiramisu was silky, flavoursome and sweet; in other words utterly lovely. I even treated myself to a sneaky glass of dessert wine with it to help accentuate the sweetness further. Dan went all fresh and fruity with a brandsnap basket loaded with fresh fruit and served with sorbet.

We must have been good guests as we were given limoncello shots on the house once we had paid our bill. This really helped to round off what really was an incredibly special meal. The food was simply to die for, and although poor Dan paid through the nose for our meal, I can’t help but think that every penny was well worth it as the meal was amazing. The quality and standard of the dishes was unbelievably high and the portion sizes were really rather large too to leave us completely stuffed and waddling back to our hotel. The service was a little slow, but considering it was Saturday and we needed all the rest time we could muster in between courses, I wouldn’t say it was a problem in any way.

I really can’t convey what a magical evening we had at Cielo. It was romantic and the food was impeccable. Well worth a visit if you happen to be in Birmingham, although don’t expect to pay less than the quality deserves.

Gourmet Pizza, Gabriel’s Wharf, London

Set Menu:

  • Location: Gourmet Pizza, 56 Upper Ground, Unit 20, London SE1 9PP (nearest tube station is Waterloo or Southwark)
  • Date of Visit: Tuesday 17th October 2017
  • Time of Table: 6.15pm
  • Deal Bought From: Groupon
  • Deal Price: £24 for two people
  • Dinner Companion: Good friend Charlotte

Getting more for your money?

This dinner deal includes:

  • Starter each from a selection
  • Main course each from a selection
  • Glass of house wine each

What I ate:

  • Starter: Garlic Bread
  • Main Course: Vegetarian Pizza

What I drank:

  • A glass of house white wine

What did we think?

Heading to the Southbank always feels trendy, but especially so when I was visiting Gourmet Pizza in October. I had never before stumbled across Gabriel’s Wharf, and I found it to be an intriguing cul-de-sac of random bars and quirky shops, the venues framing a roomy central space scattered with picnic-style benches. Certainly more of a hot-spot in the summer, I was here to meet my friend Charlotte for dinner at Gourmet Pizza, which scenically faced the river Thames. The restaurant looked like it would be more at home propped up over a pier, with its black wooden plank structure and tent-like extension, heated lamps keeping the clear plastic add-on section nice and toasty. Despite looking a bit out of place, the aromas wafting out of the restaurant were alluring to say the least, and since we both love pizza, when this voucher cropped up on Groupon, we thought it would make the ideal cheap friend date. The voucher was £24 for two people, which equated to £12 each. For this, we would get a two course meal and a glass of wine.

When I arrived, the restaurant was already packed, despite it still being early evening on a random Tuesday. Luckily I had pre-booked a table, so I was shown to a tiny table to two immediately, in the plastic tent extension section. Here, there wasn’t really any decoration to speak of, but the tables and hard dining chairs were all dark wood to match the black exterior. Charlotte joined me at the table when she arrived, and we eagerly awaited someone to give us the food and drink options that were applicable for our voucher.

When we bought the deal from Groupon, part of the online description listed the menu we would be able to choose from. It gave a selection of starters and main courses and also named a few desserts too, therefore both Charlotte and I already had inklings of what we wanted to pick for our meals. We also both wanted to do a main course and dessert rather than a main course and starter. However, we were thwarted before we had even begun, as when a waiter arrived to explain what we could choose from, he said that they had changed the available voucher options after we had purchased the deal, and we now had literally half the choice that we had previously. We had only three starters to pick from, pretty much a salad and a couple of pizzas for mains, and we were also told that the offer did not apply to desserts, but just for starters and main courses. As you can imagine, this left us feeling rather hard-done by as it wasn’t what we had signed up and paid for, and we would have preferred to have what was actually advertised. However we decided not to make a fuss and to try and enjoy our now limited meal as much as we could. We started by ordering our house wine options; I went for the white while Charlotte selected the red.

Since I didn’t fancy soup, I could either choose bruschetta like Charlotte or go for the garlic bread. I decided to pick the garlic bread, and to be fair, it was lovely. It came as an individual, thick oval of soft and doughy bread, a dent in the middle of the portion pooling the melted garlic butter. The top of the garlic bread had a lovely buttery golden sheen that added a bit of bite to the bread overall, although it was satisfyingly soft and also very tasty. Let’s face it though, it’s hard to go wrong with a decent garlic bread! A nice way to whet the appetite, it was a good size and a lovely bread.

For main course, I thought it was only natural to pick a pizza sent we were at a pizza restaurant, however we only had two pizza options to pick from. Charlotte went for the pepperoni pizza, however I decided to venture away from my usual meat-fest and instead pick a vegetarian option. My pizza therefore featured red and yellow peppers, olives, artichokes and spinach for a Mediterranean vibe. When the pizza arrived, it was pretty standard fare to be honest with you. The crust and base was nice and thin, it wasn’t burnt or too brown at all and the crust still had a doughy yield in the centre which I like. The tomato sauce base was very vibrant, hallmarking the use of fresh tomatoes, while both the cheese and toppings were generously scattered over the top. The cheese had melted gorgeously and was speckled with grilled brown flecks; the toppings were colourful and plentiful to cover the top of the pizza. It was a yummy pizza and a nice size for one person, filling me up but not leaving me uncomfortable. The veggies were all tasty too, with a lightly grilled tone.

The main issue however was the length of the service. It was absolutely appalling. We waited an age for whatever we ordered, whether it was our wine at the beginning or our pizzas for our main meal. Everything was coming out of the kitchen and bar with an absolute snail’s pace, which quite frankly is ridiculous considering that pizza is a typically fast food to cook and serve. We waited so long for absolutely everything that we didn’t even attempt to buy over and above our voucher by having dessert; we weren’t even offered the menu After our pizzas, we literally waited and waited, then decided to just stand up and leave since all we’d consumed so far was included as part of our voucher. If the service had been better, we most likely would have had dessert and another round of drinks, but the service was slow, generally poor and definitely not worth the wait since the food is just average anyway. The bad service certainly cast a negative shadow over the evening; we even saw other couples nearby receive pizzas that were burnt or stone cold. With raised eyebrows, we decided to quit while we were ahead and go and get a concluding drink elsewhere.

Although our meal at Gourmet Pizza was enjoyable, it wasn’t out of this world, and you could definitely go to other Italians venues for the same food but better service. It’s a shame really as such a prime river-side spot could be a real money-spinner, however I also was not impressed that they changed the voucher details halfway through its stint on Groupon. Surely you would wait until afterwards and maybe do it for the next time you run a deal rather than halfway through a current offer? We didn’t get what was advertised and the food did not make up for the bad service. The best bit of the evening was getting to catch up with my friend for a thankfully cheap price. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy my meal and I delivered clean plates each time, but for waiting times are really not worth the hassle.

Prezzo, Piccadilly Circus, London

Set Menu:
· Location: 36-38 Glasshouse Street, Soho, London, W1B 5DL (nearest tube station is Piccadilly Circus)
· Date of Visit: Wednesday 8th November 2017
· Time of Table: 6.00pm
· Deal Bought From: Buy A Gift
· Deal Price: £30 for two
· Dinner Companion: Best friend Vick
Getting More for your Money?
This dinner deal includes:
· Starter each from a set menu
· Main course each from a set menu
· Dessert each from a set menu
· Glass of house wine each
What I ate…
· Starter: Giant Meatballs
· Main: Penne Alla Norma
· Dessert: Tiramisu
What I drank…
· Glass of house white wine
· Glass of Prosecco (not included)
· Hot chocolate (not included)
What did we think?
Meeting up with friends can be difficult when it’s the run up to Christmas, and you are both trying to maintain a bit of a shoe-string budget in order to bulk buy all of the necessary festive presents. The offer I managed to nab from Buy A Gift however seemed too much of a bargain to pass up, offering a three course meal for two people and a glass of house wine, all for £30 or £15 each. This suited our moth-ridden purses just fine, so we promptly bought the deal, printed off our evoucher and booked ourselves a table online.
Naturally there are an abundance of Prezzo chain restaurants dotted around London, however we chose the one situated on Glasshouse Street. I work in Soho while my friend Vick works near Bond Street, so heading to Piccadilly Circus provided a nice middle ground for us both to get to easily.
We both arrived early and were promptly seated. The décor was very simple and unmemorable to be honest, with clean white walls and wooden floors, plenty of non-descript tables wedged in where space would allow. We were seated by a wall of windows on high stool sized seats that were thickly cushioned like wide individual booths, upholstered in mustard yellow. The table was small and certainly cosy, but did the job.
On arrival, we chose our respective glasses of wine, me opting for the white and Vick for the red. We were then presented with both the set menu that corresponded to our evoucher, as well as the restaurant’s main menu. Apparently due to technical trouble in the kitchen, a lot of the dishes could not be cooked, therefore our choices had more than halved in the blink of an eye. Since the set menu was quite restricted anyway, we were given the main menu as well to afford us more choice so we could actually construct our three courses, as with the grill out of action our set menu was far too sparse, especially as each course only had about three or four options to start with anyway. Our waitress reeled off the shortened list of starters we could pick, and then said for the main course, we could only pick from the pizza and pasta sections really. Definitely a confusing start to the meal as this wasn’t explained too clearly to us, but we got there in the end and were able to make our selections.
For starters, I chose the giant meatballs, as let’s face it, you really can’t go wrong with meatballs. The meatballs consisted of minced veal, beef, pork and pancetta, squished with fennel and parsley for good measure and served with a ladle-full of tomato-based pomodoro sauce on top. When the dish arrived, it featured four of the meatballs, served on a white rectangular plate, the chunky sauce pooling on top of the meat. To be honest, I’ve seen larger meatballs and these ones to me just seemed a normal size, so a bit of fake advertising there. After accepting some extra parmesan to be grated over my meal, I tucked in. The meatballs had a great flavour and the herbs were not overpowering in the slightest, providing just the merest of background notes. The meat was certainly the front and foremost flavour, accented by the very light and juicy tomato pomodoro sauce. The texture of the meatballs was quite fine and a little on the dry side, but that again was soon remedied by the sauce. Overall, a nice little starter to get the meal going.
I had no idea what I fancied for my main course, especially as our options had dwindled so rapidly. In the end, I went for a vegetarian pasta dish, the penne alla norma. This included grilled aubergine, garlic and basil in a creamy pomodoro sauce, so quite a simple ingredients list too. The pasta was served in a large, deep white bowl and was also actually a decent portion; I find sometimes that pasta dishes can come up a little small so I’m glad this portion filled me up! Again, I got the extra parmesan grated on top of my meal for added cheesiness. Considering I don’t eat pasta out too often, I actually really enjoyed this. I liked the combination of the char grilled aubergine paired with the garlic; I think the warmth of the garlic just really brings out the flavour of the aubergine, and where the aubergine is a softer, more rustic and Mediterranean veg, it just really works alongside pasta. I couldn’t taste the basil, which is a good thing as I really rather dislike it! The pasta was cooked until it was soft rather than al dente, which I prefer even if it isn’t traditional, and the sauce was enough to lightly coat each tube of pasta. This gave the dish a tomato undertone that wasn’t overpowering but acted as a nice refresher and a conduit for the garlic. There wasn’t bucket loads of sauce, but there was enough to bring the dish together and that’s the main thing I guess.
I decided to go traditional Italian with my dessert by picking the tiramisu. When it arrived at the table, I was so disappointed it was unreal. Part of the reason I love tiramisu is the fact it is indulgently creamy yet light, and that the coffee-drenched sponge fingers cut through the mascarpone to create a wonderful concoction of mild cream and strong coffee. What I received at Prezzo was more like a structure than a dessert, with three sponge fingers, merely speckled with soaked coffee rather than properly absorbing it all, arranged to form a small pyramid shape. The luscious creaminess I was expecting was instead a rather thin layer in the centre of the pyramid, a little more spread on top to dust cocoa powder over. For me, this was a massive disappointment. I know tiramisu can vary greatly between restaurants, however I have always enjoyed it and it has always been creamy and coffee-fuelled. This version however certainly did not tick my boxes, and I was lusting after Vick’s sticky toffee pudding with complete abandon. My sweet tooth was left unsatisfied.
In addition to what our evoucher entitled us too, we ordered an extra glass of Prosecco each to help wash down our meal, and we also had a concluding hot chocolate each rather than a coffee. The hot chocolate was really lovely actually, and was just the right texture between being too thin or too thick; it was the perfect amount of opulence. It was only these extra drinks that we had to pay for, and since the rest of our meal equated to £15 each, it was a very affordable evening out.
The service was fair, however not all of the waitresses knew we had a voucher, so we kept getting different menus and when we asked what we were able to choose from, it sometimes got a little muddled as they would have to check with each other. However on the whole the food was tasty and the service was good; the staff were polite and friendly. The main problem of the night was of course the fact that half the kitchen was not operational, as this really reduced what we could pick for our dinner. Naturally it’s just one of those unfortunately, but it was a shame. I also wished I’d chosen a different dessert, as the tiramisu did not live up to my Italian expectations and for me, it wasn’t all that great. The voucher was a good price though and if I was looking to save pennies again, I’d certainly be tempted to investigate Prezzo once more.

Holiday Munchies: Castello Restaurant, Frome

No matter where I am in the country, Italian food seems to call to me; a siren signal that magnetically pulls me towards the nearest cheese-topped pizza, meatball-adorned pasta, or cocoa-covered tiramisu. Even when on a road trip recently for my two year wedding anniversary, I still managed to smuggle in a meal at an Italian restaurant; Castello. Clearly popular with the locals in Frome, my husband Dan and I visited on a busy Saturday evening to explore why nearby residents came in their droves.

Castello quite a modern appearance, taking style tips from the big chains such as Ask and Wildwood to feature condiment-covered shelves filled with containers of dried pasta and jars of oil, while the wine-filled bar across the left hand side of the restaurant backed on to a pale grey brickwork wall. The restaurant felt spacious with roomy high ceilings and an open second floor with additional seating. As tourists to Frome, I felt we were treated more brusquely than the regular crowd, who greeted waiting staff with handshakes, air kisses and manly claps on the back. We were clearly the interlopers here, and our tiny table of two situation right in front of the drafty main doors and a bit away from the other tables only served to emphasise this separation.

I ordered a glass of sauvignon blanc and decided to go totally Italian with my starter, selecting the tricolore. This was basically a very simplistic salad featuring squidgy round slices of white buffalo mozzarella sandwiched next to slices of tomato and avocado, the strip of slices drizzled with olive oil for that Mediterranean zing. Decorated with an over-bearing basil leaf, this starter looked so simple and easy. I love buffalo mozzarella but rarely have it, which is the sole reason that I occasionally choose this staid and boring starter. However, I did like the addition of the avocado to Castello’s version, and I found the creaminess of this health fat laden veg provided a great accent to the similar creamy tones in the cheese. The tomato added a juicy wetness and the olive oil didn’t add much at all in all honesty.

I was feeling in a pasta mood, so I decided to pick the strozzpreti pugliese for my main course, making sure that I also got the trademark dusting of parmesan cheese on top from the passing waiter. This pasta dish, which was on the small side in my opinion, used hand twisted pasta shapes which I thought were great fun. It also included spicy and flavourful balls of luganica sausage, salty pieces of pancetta, wilted spinach leaves, red chilli butter and white wine, finished with a garlic oil. I really enjoyed the subtle heat and robust combinations used in this pasta dish. The sausage was the most dominant component in my opinion, and you could distinctly taste herb flavours coming through the sizzled meat. The oils added a real warmth to the overall dish which I liked, and although I didn’t find too many spinach leaves, I enjoyed them nonetheless as I don’t eat them much at home due to my husband not being a huge spinach fan. On the whole, again it was a simple meal but I liked the flavours and ingredients. Even though the portion was small, it still felt hearty because of the flavours. I knew I would still need dessert however.

For dessert, I actually steered clear of my usual tiramisu and opted for one of my favourite English desserts, but with a specific Italian twist; limoncello trifle. This featured Madeira sponge that was soaked in Italy’s pungent lemon liqueur, before being topped with lemon curd, amaretto biscuits, blueberries and whipped cream. Served in a glass desert dish, the blueberries were more on top of the dessert than in it, sitting like little eyes on top of the cream to stare me out. There was certainly lashings of the whipped cream – I’d say the majority of the dessert was cream – while the base of the dish was filled with the soaked sponge. The limoncello was potent and the violent zing of harsh lemon that excludes from the liqueur was certainly in effect for the trifle sponge, which was lovely and soggy. I denoted an absence of any lemon curd, which I suspect would have added a creamy and soft antidote to the limoncello’s vibrancy of flavour. It was a nice dessert and something different to try, especially as trifle is one of my favourites. I just wish the lemon curd could have made an appearance for an even better flavour.

The cocktail menu was sitting plaintively on our table, its pages ajar in invitation. Of course I had a glance and then felt compelled to try the cappuccino cocktail for the very reasonable price of £6.50. Served in a rounded martini style glass, the creamy concoction sounded right up my street, with amaretto, Tia Maria, fresh milk and coffee liqueur all shaken together before being poured out and topped with a dusting of cocoa. I adore creamy chocolate and coffee cocktails, so I was keen to sample this one. I found it distinctly average. It was thinner in texture than I was expecting, and the flavour was nice, but I think it could have done with a heftier kick of alcohol to really ramp up the flavour. It seemed to be a milder, dialled down version of what it should be.

Overall, I did enjoy my meal at Castello, although I think I would say a few tweaks would go a long way into raising both the food and drink to the next level. The menu covers all bases with a good selection of food and the prices were all very reasonable, which is a nice plus point. The service was ok, but I did think we were made to feel like outsiders, which contrasted so starkly to the warm welcome issued to Frome regulars. Tasty, but I’m not quite convinced I can see what all the fuss is about from the local folk.

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?