Pasta

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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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 

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