italian

Laghi’s Deli, Edgbaston

Once a week my Dad goes to see a covers band at his local pub. I’ve never been with him; I have no interest in seeing Fred Zeppelin, however good their version of Kashmir is supposed to be. I just don’t get the point. I want the real thing or I don’t want it at all. I don’t want to watch the simian stroll of a parka wearing Gallagher wannabe when there are two presently touring and doing a good enough job of murdering their own music. And I can’t be sure if Blobbie Williams is a tribute act or a tabloid attributed nickname. For all of the fake swagger and choreographed movements, they are nothing but homages to the real thing. Anyone can pout their lips, wear a sparkly jacket, and put on a mockney accent, but it’s nowhere close to seeing Jagger arch that back of his and thrust out the pelvis in the flesh. Any woman, man, or horse can put on a blonde wig. conical bra, and gash-flashing leotard but it doesn’t make you Madonna. In my younger years I wore cardigans and could play you the opening bars to ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’, yet I never said I was Kurt Cobain. Or Lead Belly if you closed your eyes. Impersonators simply don’t have the magic of the real thing; they are imposters in dress-up.

I felt the same way about Italian food in Birmingham. We have Italian restaurants but none ever felt real to me; they are homogenized tributes to what we think is Italian food – a tour of an imagined Italy with dishes reconstructed for those delicate Anglicised palates of ours. Our ‘nduja has been stripped of the searing heat and offal that bangs down doors, to be replaced with a more polite neighbour that goes to bed at 9pm, whilst our carbonara has cream added because we are fed the lies that eggs have be completely cooked. This isn’t an issue; there is clearly a market for this, but I want the real Italy.

In a way Laghi’s Deli is more a project of love than business. Luca, the owner, comes from a family of restauranteurs back in Bologna and wanted to bring a Northern Italian slice of pizza back to Birmingham. And it is a resounding success, easily delivering the most authentic take on that cuisine I have eaten outside of it, backed up by a wine list that punches with hard-hitting reds and zesty whites. From the three starters we take it is the quality of the ingredients that shines through, nowhere more so than on a Caprese salad. As a dish it is a simple sum of its parts, yet here it speaks loudly of a real Italy; one that gestiticulates with every word. Everything is imported, from the young mozzerella to the olive oil that adds a peppery summeriness to a grey September evening. It may not have the best of carbon footprints, but frankly who cares when it tastes this good.

Our other two starters are big hitting. A parmesan cake with pancetta is an oozy umami bomb which cleverly shifts textures between a molten centre and crisp ham that guards its walls. It is a beautiful example of how when done correctly, this style of food doesnt need a handful of salt to get going; the seasoning is already embedded in the ingredients. A scallop the size of a baby’s fist is gratinated under breadcrumbs, served simply in its own cooking juices alongside a lightly dressed salad. At £7 for the special it feels too cheap, though they taint the perfectly cooked shellfish by leaving the less-than-perfectly cooked roe on.

For mains we take pasta, the hallmark of any Italian restaurant worth its dusting of parmesan. Yes they do pizza, but I can get great examples elsewhere. There is nowhere – I repeat, nowhere – that does good pasta anywhere in this brilliant city. Laghi’s is made fresh (rumour has it by Momma Laghi) and is properly lovely. We have egg and flour transformed into silky ribbons of tagliatelle with a loose ragu of beef that draws silence across the table, and parcels of ravioli that deliver verdant flavours of spinach and ricotta in a puddle of melted butter scented with sage. Oh, how I’ve waited for this moment. Even when the pasta isn’t made fresh it still trumps its competitors. The penne for the carbonara may be from a packet, but it is cooked to a careful bite that won’t have you screaming out the safe word. This is a real carbonara; one with salty guancialle ham and a sauce of warmed yolks that is mercifully cream free. It has been made by someone who understands the principles of the dish.

Desserts are a chocolate molten cake and an affogato. Both have good stuff going on, in particular the raspberry and gin sorbet with the cake, though I happen to have the sold out donuts on my mind for next time. A quick word on the service: I had heard murmurs about the service being occasionally poor, and, truthfully, this had put us off going. I can only comment on the evening we eat when it was faultless; dishes come out of the kitchen correctly and well-spaced, numerous orders for glasses of wine are swiftly taken and delivered. With mains hovering a little over a tenner, the bill for this would usually sit around £30-40 per head, which is super value, though we indulge in far too many dishes and drinks. Regardless, it was a great meal in presently the stand-out Italian offering, only missing out on the top marks because the menu feels a bit safe (being September I would have loved to have seen rabbit or wild mushrooms for that true Bologna experience), but this is just a small detail to a neighbourhood restaurant I can see us constantly returning to. Finally Birmingham has an authentic Italian that I can recommend. And without wishing to sound like an Etta James tribute act. At Last.

9/10

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Rojano’s in The Square, Padstow

I can’t remember the name of our waiter, but I would like to publically extend an apology to him. I am sorry for the jokes straight out of the seventies, and my personal state which went from nicely pissed to pathetically wasted. I had no idea that Bin Two was such a lovely place to sit in the sun, or that one drink would turn into two G&T’s and five glasses of wine before dinner, so I when I continually pestered you for the arancini as dessert and petit fours, it was the grape juice talking. Even if I could have easily eaten twenty more of them.

Now, if you hadn’t guessed by now, this short piece is 100% seen whilst wearing my beer googles. But I can confidently tell you with way more certainty than how we got home, that this place would have been bloody lovely even if I were sober and it was raining outside and the pretty lady sitting opposite me was trying to talk Kardashians with me. It starts with those arancini filled with a peppery Bolognese, with a truffle and madeira dip that adds a earthy quality without detracting from the richness. And a special of gypsy eggs, which is really just baked eggs with tomato and chorizo, and three fat spears of local asparagus to dunk with. Unlike any gypsies I’ve met these are clean in taste and polite. Just like gypsies, I would gladly marry it if it were related. But those arancini. They were the best thing we ate all weekend, which included a trip to the other Paul Ainsworth restaurant in town that happens to be bestowed with a star.

Being Italian in notion, we order a pizza and pasta for mains. I’m mocked for my choice of pizza by the equally wasted partner, who points out that I may as well be in Pizza Express. Piss off Claire and get back to your wine. The Diavola has a thin sourdough base that doesn’t do much for me, though what this lacks in character is made up by a tomato base with bags of attitude. The salami on top is of obvious quality and the roquito, jalapeños, and chilli peppers add varying degrees of heat and fruitiness. Liberal blobs of proper mozzarella are just plain naughty. The crusts get taken through the last of the dip which came with the arancini. Oh those arancini.

The other main is the kind of bastardisation that would usually have me sweating for mucking about with the classics, but here, well I like it. We have essentially what is carbonara with pork meatballs. The pasta is fresh and, don’t tell anyone, better in texture than the tagliatelle the night before at No.6. The egg yolk still warming through on the pasta adds a lusciousness, whilst the back note of madeira is unexpected but welcome. The meatballs have little interference other than the taste of pig. It’s a very good bowl of pasta. Fat bronzed chips were totally unnecessary but quickly gobbled down after a dredging through a mustardy mayonnaise.

Dessert has one ice cream based option called a Whoopsie Splunker, presumably a description of what will happen to me if I eat that much dairy. We pass, finish up on the wine and pay a bill of £80 for the two of us. The following day whilst stuck in traffic on the A30 we discuss the meal, concluding that it is was more than just the wine that made it so jolly. When done this well, good Italian food can awaken the soul; it’s nourishing and dare I say it, sexy. Not that any of that was happening in our little cottage, we were too busy sleeping off the booze and the food, dreaming of Bolognese filled arancini.

8/10

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Fumo, Selfridges, Birmingham

The fit-out for Fumo at Selfridges is said to be one million sterling. A crazy amount of money for any restaurant, but a particularly obscene sum given (and yes, the clue is in the name) that it is within the confines of a shop. When I initially heard the plans, I thought the owner had lost his marbles. And now that I’ve sat inside the fourth floor restaurant, it is clear that someone else has found them and sold them back to him at a massive profit. It is a mass of polished calacatta, the kind that I sell for a day job and wonder who is buying it at the sort of money it commands. Answer: Here. It smells of money. Of high heels with coloured soles, of oversized handbags with padlocks, and of perfume made from the tears of Romany gypsies. I may have made the last bit up. Even the tables are thick marble, ours a large disc in the centre of the room big enough for six big gents and six bigger egos.

In the ninety or so minutes that we take to have lunch the queue outside would grow substantially. It is clearly working. The format is small plates, intended for those who can share. I can’t. The cuisine is Italian in the friendliest of senses – all prime cuts and smiles and things on toasted bread. There is no offal to be found here. I do wish I could find working organs in an Italian restaurant in Birmingham. Even if I do have to walk through Juicy Couture to get to them.

I get over myself with a bulb of burrata that has been marinated from the inside-out with black truffle, in the same way I like to marinate myself inside-out with red wine. Its more odour than flavour, just like the girl outside the doors waving cardboard strips of Channel no.5, though it works well with folds of Parma ham with glistening fat. I have pillowy gnocchi in a Grana Padana sauce, served in a basket made from the same cheese. I’ve had it before at other restaurants in the same group. It’s kitsch, but it is also tasting better than it ever has before. The basket has textural purpose as opposed to purely presentation.

Pork belly is substantial value for £9, roasted until the fat and meat knits together and the skin crisps up. On the side is an out of place wedge of charred cabbage from a chef who has been watching too much Masterchef, and a puddle of gravy that has a hit of balsamic and happiness. Next time I’ll know what to expect and order this alongside the mash potato with truffle. There is a polite ragu with clusters of beef mince that clings on to lengthy strips of pasta like a failed relationship. The last dish to arrive (this is small plates – they come when they are ready) are delicately fried prawns. The heads come away from the torso with the lightest of tugs and we savour both; dunking the body meat into a mayo sharpened with lemon and sucking in those lovely head juices. Not advertised are the courgette fries which come with it. These are superb, equally light and moreish.

They don’t have the dessert I want which we take as a signal to finish up and head off. Dinner with wine works out to be £40 per head, which seems very fair given the opulent surroundings and quality of food. I honestly wasn’t expecting much at Fumo, it’s in a shop and the menu seemed a little identikit, but I’m happy to stand corrected when I’m wrong. They cook with skill and there wasn’t a dud dish to be found. I’ll gladly brave the shopping crowds to eat here again. I liked it, Fumo. I liked it a lot.

8/10

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Fumo Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pastaio, London

Not so long ago I was asked for the best Italian restaurant in Birmingham. “There isn’t one”, I said. “Pick another cuisine or go to London”. Whilst harsh, I stand by what I said. Our best Italian restaurants are universally average and I would argue that the food coming out of my kitchen is a damm sight better than the majority of theirs. Give me notice and I’ll braise down some ox cheeks and use the liquor to transform them into a ragu of rich meat. Expect this with homemade tagliatelle and a dusting of aged parmasen. Good Italian cooking isn’t difficult – I can do it, for Christs sake – we’ve just anglicised it to the point of pure laziness.

I have places that I go to for fresh pasta, places that I’m not going to publicise because the queues are large enough already. And then I see a tweet from Nigella Lawson of a potato ravioli with gravy, an oozing egg yolk and white truffle. Take me there and invite Lawson to bring the party whilst you’re at it. As soon we get off the train it’s straight over to Pastaio where a fifteen minute wait has us seated in the week old restaurant.


We try four dishes which is enough to make me want to come back, but possibly not in a mad rush anytime soon. The biggest dissapointment is first; a toastie of sorts with mozzarella, honey, and n’duja. I note the n’duja last because this is barely present – the tiniest of blobs that sits off centre. I’d imagine in it’s full glory this is a dish to savour, just not today.


Pasta is why we are here and that is obviously where their heart lies. With no ravioli and gravy party we plump for wild mushroom tagliatelle. The pasta is silky smooth, the mushrooms delicately cooked with garlic. It’s a joy. Diminutive shells of malloredus pocket a ragu of sausage meat. It’s a grower of a dish, one that I end up clearing despite not enjoying the chewy croutons that work the jaw.


The day belongs to cacio and pepe and bucatini – a 2017 pasta dish if there ever were one. The thick pasta coated in a sauce of parmesan, butter and toasted peppercorns. It’s decadent and brilliantly judged, the ultimate in comfort food.


With dinner booked for two hours later, we opt against dessert, despite developing envy from the neighbouring tables tiramisu. Cheese toastie aside, we had an enjoyable lunch at Pastaio, even if it’s not the earth shattering moment of pasta perfection we longed for. It’s destined to be a success, with long queues in Soho a certainty once word gets around. Me, I’ll be patiently waiting for the potato ravioli and gravy before I consider joining the back of it.

7/10 

San Carlo, Grana Padano lunch 

When I were in my late teens some friends of mine had a t-shirt made that read ‘there’s only one Simon Carlo’, a wonderful present that fed my ego successfully until we found out that Birmingham had two us, with the other being my cousin. I didn’t want the t-shirt after that, especially when he turned out to be far nicer than I ever will be. Still, there can’t be that many of us Carlos traipsing around the city, stealing women and breaking hearts, and besides, I bloody love being a Carlo; it’s part of what defines me, the surname that has become my nickname, that has become the only bit that people ever remember about me. I’m even willing to share my surname with a certain Italian restaurant, just as long as they keep it classy in return.


My visits to San Carlo have not been nearly frequent enough. It was one of the first places I ever took a girl on a date to, me thinking that the waiters would find my ‘Mr S Carlo’ debit card as funny as I. They don’t – they only care for flexing giant phallic pepper mills whilst staring intently into my date’s eyes. I’ve been a handful of times since, and today I’m here to try a selection of autumnal specials all showcasing Grano Padano cheese. This works for me, there is the promise of truffles and plenty of wine. And cheese. Don’t get me started on my love of cheese.


Of the three dishes we try the first is my favourite by some distance. Two large gnocco that I incorrectly call gnuddi on Twitter afterwards. I can feel my Father’s forefathers’ spit hit the ground in disgust at my naivety. They are light and coated in cornflour for a contrasting crisp exterior. It’s the sauce that makes it; a rich cheesey puddle with the umami backnote of Worcestershire sauce. Plenty of black truffle might be more extravagental fragrance than flavour, but it’s one that I’m happy with. It’s perfumes the dish with an unmistakable autumnal scent.



Mushroom risotto arrives in a wheel of cheese for full theatrics. What is plated is a good risotto with plenty of mushrooms, a pinch of salt away from being perfect. The base has the depth that I assume comes from a dried porcini starting point with good quality stock absorbed into the arborio rice. The choice of rose wine as a pairing is a brave one, but works due to the acidity levels. A tuile made from the Grana Padano is formed into a basket, and inside has gnocchi in a pokey Gorgonzola sauce. It’s nice but lacks the same effect of the first two dishes.


We finish up with coffee and more wine, talking to the nice cheese man about nice cheeses from Northern Italy and trying to convince him to join us afterwards at the pub. I could go on and on about the different types but I seriously doubt anyone ever reads this looking for informative news. Instead let me tell you that the three dishes I tried are specials until the end of November and are bloody lovely. So lovely in fact that I now want to give my namesake a proper lookover once again. There is a simplicity to the best Italian food that San Carlo gets, how certain ingredients work together with the minimum of fuss. How dishes should be seasoned and then finished. It is another reason why I am proud to be a Carlo.

I was invited to the press event.

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San Carlo Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Gusto, Birmingham

I’d like to think that places like Gusto are a sign of just how far Birmingham has progressed over recent years.  I don’t think it would have fitted in five years ago when the city was still finding it’s culinary feet, or even two years back when areas such as Edgbaston and Moseley were making massive indentations into antediluvian stereotype.  Now, less than six months after its opening, it feels like a staple of Colmore Row – rewarded by a full dining room whose attitude towards dining out is more open.  It sits underneath the Grand Hotel, right in the heart of the financial district.  Inside you’ll find one of the prettier dining rooms in the city, one that nods towards the 1920’s without ever compromising the simplicity of modern interior design.  Glance around and you’ll see slithers of stained glass and splashes of marble, with circular wooden tables that suit tables of four far better than just us two.  It evokes the dining rooms of New York’s Nolita district, a style that matches a menu full of the bastardisation cuisine that is American-Italian.

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Now, you may, or may not, be aware that Gusto is a chain.  Whether that bothers you or not depends on how much time you like to spend shouting at birds in the street.  Me, I couldn’t care less, it obviously works or else they wouldn’t have sloped down from the north to Birmingham.  The first thing I ate happened to be very good indeed.  Torn shreds of braised pork, with gnocchi and cherry bell pepper, all dressed in light rocket pesto.  The gnocchi is light and lends itself well to the rest of the plate.  There is heat from the peppers and plenty of robust seasoning.  It quickly disappears.

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Duck comes medium-rare as requested, on a warm salad of pulses and roasted winter veg.  It’s succeeds in being lighter than it looks, simultaneously fresh and earthy, though we welcome additional carbs in the form of fries dusted with parmesan and truffle. Lamb Cacciatore is a traditional Italian Easter dish of slow cooked ovine, here presented as a gutsy stew rich with tomato and red wine.  Like everything else we try, it’s considered and well cooked, the working muscles of the lamb cooked until they offer no resistance to fork nor teeth, with a dollop of pesto to cut through some of the richness.  Portions are on the American side of large and we find no room for dessert, despite a mischievous sounding Nutella calzone.  I’ll be back for that, don’t you worry.  The bill, with a nice bottle of Barbera, comes to a very fair £63.00 for the two of us.

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I go back a few days later whilst waiting for a phone screen to be fixed in the Apple store.  There I have a pizza with cured meat and chillies that sits amongst some of the better pizza to be had in the city centre.  The base is thin and crisp, the toppings generous and of a high quality.  It makes for an ideal dinner for one with another glass of red wine too cheap for its quality.

Pasta, pizza and so forth; without ever mentioning the word Italian, Gusto have served up some of the better examples to have in Birmingham.  Yes, I know it’s not authentic; it’s immigrant food galvanized on the East coast of America, but it happens to be a damn sight better than the generic paint-by-numbers tosh we have come to accept as a given by more established Italian restaurants.  It is a welcome addition to the city; stylish, affordable and with a clear identity.  If only every group had the same high standards as Gusto, I would welcome them all with open arms.

8/10 

 

 

Fifteen Cornwall, Watergate Bay

I have a real soft spot for North Cornwall.  It’s rugged and handsome.  Where the south of the county is a refined collection of postcard perfect towns and villages which require sunshine, the north is a thing of beauty all year round.  I prefer it in winter, all windswept and daring, when the sea is vivacious and the sun occasionally beats through the clouds and transcends the vast beaches from a dull yellow to golden.  It’s less busy.  I can walk on the beach without crowds.  I can get a table at the places I want to eat at more easily.  Both of these things are important to me.

One of the places I have been keen to eat at is Fifteen Cornwall, a social enterprise from Jamie Olivier.  It’s easy to bash Olivier, others do frequently and I have in the past, yet the fact remains that his cooking has inspired a generation of home cooks, myself included once again.  I own several of his cookbooks; his onion gravy recipe is now mine.  And the restaurant serves to help those less advantage.  If it sounds like I am trying to justify eating at one of his restaurants, it’s because I did.  The reality is that we could have had lunch at Paul Ainsworth’s No. 6 restaurant for less, yet here we are, putting our empty stomachs in the hands of apprentices.

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Those apprentices and this program are doing great.  At it’s best Fifteen Cornwall stands up with some of the finer Italian cooking found anywhere on this Isle.  Antipasto lives and dies and the quality of the produce and obvious care has been taken in this department.  High quality ‘Nduja thickly spread on toast is all fire and spice, arancini is an earthy mixture of al dente rice and spongey mushroom.  We go a little bit crazy over the soft Cotechino sausage with salsa verde, less so over the metallic strips of charred pepper which end up an accessory to the other dishes.  A bread basket has good sourdough and an outstanding focaccia which tastes like aerated olive oil.

Cream laden burrata is the centre point for scoops of roasted squash that are just about holding their shape.  There is a comfort about the plate, underpinned by warming leafs of crispy sage.  It’s simplistic, maybe overly so, but then the best things in life are.

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Buccatini are fat ramen-noodle-like tangles of pasta, coated in a fiery tomato sauce.  The sauce was deep and rich, with plenty of chilli heat and something more sinister lurking behind (vodka, I think?! I’ve been wrong before).  Densely packed beef meatballs complete the generous portion, though these are too heavy to finish.  Compared to this a dish of pork belly is refined, the skin finely scored to fine strips of taught crackling.  The meat is unctuous and tender, the braised lentils underneath just cooked.  My scepticism towards a vivid green anchovy and herb dressing is short lived; it is clean, vibrant, and salty – the perfect foil for the fatty cut of pig.

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Desserts give us less to get excited over.  A pear cake has lost the essence of the fruit in amongst the heady spices, and ricotta donuts are a little stodgy in texture.  Both have redeeming features;  the cake’s toffee sauce and the donuts chocolate dipping pot are decadent to the point of being plain naughty.  The high point is a brick of tiramisu, doused in amaretto and restrained in sweetness.  It is a grown up dessert, elegant and well balanced.

Unfortunately, if the kitchen came out with there guns blazing, front of house must have ran out of bullets.  Service was poor, bordering on abysmal at times.  We were abandoned by one server, another eventually taking over and completely forgetting to bring the wine which I specifically ordered for the pork.  I can forgive most things but please, I beg you, do not come between me and fermented grapes.  Other than that, it was bloody lovely.  Like, seriously bloody lovely.  Proper Italian, cooked with care and attention.  We need one in Birmingham, where the Italian food is generic crap and I struggle to find a carbonara that doesn’t have cream in it.  Plus we have plenty of less advantaged youngsters who would kill (not literally.  Bad choice of word.) for this type of training.  Come to Birmingham and I promise to eat there once a month.  I’ll even forgive the forgotten glass of wine. C’mon, Jamie, I can’t say fairer than that.

8/10

Fifteen Cornwall Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

Divinis, Prague

Right now we’re in the midst of a whatsapp conversation that centrals around finding an Italian restaurant for someone’s birthday. Menus are being batted about over instant messaging, price ranges are being discussed.  All the usual suspects in Birmingham are there and all of them will undoubtedly disappoint, with their identikit dishes, dried pasta, and lack of imagination.  Hang on, Pizza Express has been mentioned.  Holy shit.  I assume this is some kind of demented joke.  Nope.  They are being serious.  I bang my head repeatedly against a table and wonder what I have done in a past life to deserve this.  My opinion is being asked for:  I want to tell them we should book a flight to Prague, to Divinis where some of the best Italian food I have tried can be had.

Go to Prague and you will find Divinis tucked away on a back street in the Jewish Quarter, far from the stags and hens and strippers which marginally taint this beautiful city. It’s a conservative space in a affluent part of town and is expensive by local standards, which means it is not expensive at all.  The interior is warm beige, bright artwork and modernist light fittings.  The staff all have strong jawlines and matching checked shirts.  Its a nice place to spend an evening by any standard.

Cold cuts of meat speak of intention, amongst them impeccably sourced mortadella and salami.  The board is dotted with salty pecorino, whilst the accompanying olives and sundried tomatoes feel like an afterthought that we are glad for.  There is homemade raviolo rolled so thinly that we can see the cheese and spinach through its opaque skin.  The thick tomato sauce which layers the plate is a testament to time and seasoning.  A blancmange coloured risotto is less about its additions of sausage and courgette and more about the rice, cooked perfectly to al dente.  Such attention to detail leads me to guess that whoever does the cooking here is either Italian or an Italian obsessive.  Either is fine with me.

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We order braised ox cheeks because we are told that they are a specialist of the chef.  They do not disappoint, though portion size dictates that there is no need for them to be plural.  The marsala wine they have been cooked in has added a slight acidity which holds up against the fatty meat and sweet raisins.  Its a rich dish, as the best ones always are, and it needs the spinach to provide respite.

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Veal osso buco is the kind of dish I wish we would see in every Italian restaurant but seldom do.  Here the medallions have been braised until its just holding its shape, with the cooking liquor and fine dice of vegetables clinging on for dear life.  Its good interpretation held true by a gremolata full of garlic and parsley that brings everything to life. I pile on the creamy garlic risotto that it is served with and clean the plate whilst wondering where else in the world I could find such delight for under fifteen pound.

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Dessert would be a curveball of finesse compared to the rustic fare that had previously been served to us.  A well made cherry parfait has cracks of sea salt throughout will elevate the fruit flavour, and a deconstructed Jaffa Cake – my words, not theirs – that is as good to eat as it is to look at. The sweetened cubes of bread are the textural base to provide distance between segments of orange and pipe bitter chocolate.  Just like the parfait it excels at not being overly sweet whilst still feeling like a dessert.

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The meal comes at a price similar to what we would find at home with a level of cooking well above what we are used to for Italian cuisine.  Starters and desserts all under a tenner, mains not much more.  We take advice on the wine and plump for a Czech white which does little to repay my faith.  Still, as far as finding somewhere to eat in Prague I could recommend Divinis highly enough.  There is warmth and skill aplenty which I would return to in a heartbeat.

9/10

 

La Banca, Cotteridge

If you wanted proof of what a catch I am, let it be known that I spend a lot of time looking at menus.  Its a hobby of mine that my boss at work and a formal letter for inappropriate internet usage will testify to.  Before this restaurant blogging lark arrived, it provided inspiration for meals at home in the same way that cookbooks do.  Nowadays it is all about where I will get my next fill.  I tend to split the menu hunts between my Michelin obsession, and those that I think may be some kind of hidden gem which will blast me into the stratosphere of bloggers and have people hanging on every word like some false prophet of gastronomy.  Sorry, for a minute there I lost myself.  But it proves that despite telling myself otherwise, I am like other bloggers; mostly unable to turn down a free meal and always looking to feed my ego as much as my belly.  Which takes me back to why I keep on looking at menus for obscure places that I can break to the world and declare as magnificent, even if you and I both know that in reality if they were really that good, someone with taste would have beaten me to it along time ago.

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Fear not, World, you can keep those spandex knickers on, La Banca is not one of those mythical gems.  I could have possibly told you this from the menu which claims to cook authentic Italian cuisine and still puts cream in their carbonara.  It takes a smart place in old bank on a high street in South Birmingham not used to smart places, making good use of a mirrored wall that makes the space look twice as large.  Its popular, mostly you feel because of the restaurant manager for glides between tables, flirting with the regulars who make up the crowd on a blustery winters evening.  The large phallic shaped pepper grinder were made for this man.

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Creamed carbonara aside, they try hard to keep it as authentic as possible and for the most part it works. A nibble of bean salad with crisp breads is a merciless assault of garlic, as are the garlic bread and bruschetta that follow.  I like them all, mostly because I don’t like close social encounters, but also because they bold in taste and heavily seasoned.  The bruschetta has pronounced flavours of onion and vinegar and lots and lots of garlic, even if the rather bland tomatoes are three months out of season.

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My girlfriend was having one of those vegetarian nights that she sometimes turns to.  From a good selection she opts for one that sounds most interesting; a roulade of carrot and courgette, filled with cream cheese.  Bland and under seasoned, the cheese wipes out the little flavour the vegetables have.  Its a shocker.  Far better was a bowl of linguine with pine nuts and courgettes, full of zing and heat from lemon and chilli, the nuttiness further accentuated by parmesan and brown butter.  If this is how Momma makes the pasta back home, I wonder if Momma would be interested in a younger gentleman from Birmingham.

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There is a lasagne with thick tussles of braised shoulder meat and sheets of overcooked pasta, which I forgive for it being so bloody comforting.  Its all a bit mushy, though the flavour is good with whacks of tomato and cheese and yes, you’ve guessed it, garlic.  I also admire another linguine dish with a rich vegetable ragu and topped with chicken and prawns.  Nothing gets in the way of each other here, which it could have easily have done.  Everything is distinct and accurately cooked, the pasta still with the bite that was missing from the lasagne.

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The desserts here are portioned ideally for sharing, so we order one each, because Simon doesn’t share food.  Tiramisu is the lasagne reinvented for the sweeter tooth; again a textural disaster of softness, packed full of heady flavours of coffee and chocolate.  The star is a lemon cake, with a sharp zabaglione cream filling encased in a lemon meringue.  The acidity and sweetness carefully balanced out.

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They have a decent wine list which starts to get interesting when you stick to Italy, where good bottles can be found for under twenty quid. This matches the price of the food, which, fillet steak aside, is strictly mid-teens for mains and under a tenner for everything else.  Its all good value, it feels homely, and service is warm.  Its easy to see why it is so busy.  Its not perfect, but I would gladly return for a good feed at a modest price.

7/10

La Banca Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pizzeria Margheri, Lichfield

Today I find myself north of Birmingham in Lichfield – a phrase I haven’t been able to say too often in the past. I am here for the holy grail of good company, good beer and good food. It is the food which I find most intriguing; I have come on the lure of a family run Italian restaurant where good pizza can be had. I have often bemoaned the state of Italian found in Birmingham – it’s the most poorly represented cuisine in the city and I am yet to eat in any in my home town that I would recommend to others. In Birmingham if you want good pizza you go to The Plough in Harborne. If home made, silky pasta is your thing, then I am sorry to have to break this to you, but you are in the wrong city.

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Pizzeria Margheri doesn’t look much at first. It’s a small room, with tired beige tiles on the floor and exposed brick walls. There are too many wooden tables for the cramped space and I imagine at full capacity the conversations of nearby diners become very much your business.  It is a good thing that they take the food so seriously:  They import as much as possible from their native Italy, from buffalo mozzarella through to hunks of cured meat which is sliced onsite.  Its an expense that pays off; the mozzarella is young enough to still threaten your chin with its milk, whilst the proscuitto has a depth of flavour and glistening fat that we rarely find on these shores.  With no cooking required the plate is an exercise in ingredient sourcing.  They pass the test with aplomb.

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The aforementioned pizza is made with a sour dough base which we try in a couple of forms.  First up is dough balls which are world away from the spongy tripe that they serve at Pizza Express.  Here the dough is deep fried and non-uniform in size.  There is a pleasingly high salt content and a chunky tomato salsa which pays thanks to the quality shopping again.  Think savoury donuts for grown ups and you’re just about there.  The pizza was a delight.  Everything above board was well sourced, from more of the mozzarella to the discs of salami, but it was below decks where the hard work was done.  The dough had been treated to a blitz through an oven which rendered leopard spots of char on the base.  The crust was chewy, the centre correctly soupy.  It is up there with a certain Franca Manca in London as the best pizza in the country.  And all of this on a side street in a city that only qualifies as one because of a cathedral.  The thirty thousand residents of Lichfield don’t know how lucky they are.

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Did I mention that they have a constantly changing pasta menu which I’ll be going back to try?  Or that it is seriously cheap? Throw in a starter, main course and a few beers apiece and you’ll struggle to reach the dizzying heights of twenty-five quid a head.  All of which makes the fact that we dined in a half empty restaurant on a Saturday evening all the more shocking.  Maybe they need a fully-functioning website, or maybe they just need to relocate to my street so I can single-handily keep them ticking over.  In a country full of chains serving faux-Italian, independents such as Margheri deserve to thrive for serving authentic food at a fair price.   At last I have an Italian which I can recommend.  Go try it for yourself, even if like me it is forty minutes on a train away.

8/10

Margheri Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato