Tropea started life over the last lockdown as ‘Project Food’, which is a truly dreadful name for what was a very good fresh pasta meal kit. We had them a few times, working through the lengthy cooking instructions that mostly amounted to boiling pasta and reheating sauce. It was all excellent and the pasta was clearly the star. They announced they were opening a food project – a restaurant if we’re being pedantic – and the name would be Tropea, inspired by a pretty Italian coastal town. Even better they said it would be in Harborne. I like Harborne. It’s why I live there.
The restaurant is twelve minutes walk from my house, or nineteen minutes if you use the shortcut that we took on the evening we dined. The greetings are warm, dare I say almost Italian, and we are soon sat at our tables ordering too much wine between four. Negroni is well made; boozy, with two types of vermouth. It’s a good start. Then from the snacks juicy, salty olives, followed by courgette flowers, fresh as you like, stuffed with goats cheese, battered and dressed in honey which are an early star. I don’t like much about the bought-in arancini, but we do like the pea purée, thick enough to grace a bag of chips in the best possible way. Squid is textbook; just enough bite and chew, with crispy caper berries and a green mayonnaise which provides a different and distinct counterpoint.
We take all four pasta dishes. It feels a safe order given the previous food project. The Sardinian culurgiones are new to me, a kind of pleated ravioli not too dissimilar to pierogi, stuffed with potato, mint, and peccorino, and imbedded on an unremarkable tomato sauce which is metallic and lacks both salt and acidity. It’s good but there is way more fun elsewhere. Take the pappardelle, already one of the great pasta dishes of Birmingham, with a ragu of beef shin that speaks of patience, red wine, and restrained beefiness. The ragu could be bigger but to do so would detract from the excellent pasta. A fettuccine with smoked eel is a meaty, fuggy number that delivers in big flavours and is universally loved by the table. Best is the ricotta and lemon filled ravioli, as light and breezy as a beach holiday in Sicily, with a pistachio pesto that anchors onto the pasta sheets. It’s glorious. Thinking about it now, I think I’ll go back for it again tomorrow.
There’s more. I did warn you that we ordered too much. Sardines, butterflied and grilled until the skin blister, lay wide-eyed on a zippy caponata flecked with almonds and capers. Octopus, a touch over, is overshadowed by a truly superb aioli that takes days to creep out of the skin pores as it should. The rest of the plate, the crispy cubes of potato and the olive, work in a similar way to the squid. They compliment rather than attack the celaphoid.
The best two dishes are reserved for last and will ultimately form the pick of two course dinners from a menu brimming with options. First take the wild prawns the length of a child’s forearm. Tear head from body and suck; remove meat from shell and devour. Take focaccia and let it sit in the oil spiked with garlic and red chilli. Pull up via the walls of the bowl and eat. Job done. Then the ox cheek, slowly cooked with just a little bite, in a puddle of the reduced cooking liquor. Pickled walnuts and onions, and a cube of crispy polenta which proves that all polenta needs to make it interesting is way more butter and Parmesan than polenta. Another beautiful dish, born in the depths of winter and played out on a warm August evening. The prawns are £14; the ox cheek £13. You’ll struggle to eat better for £27 in Birmingham.
We go on a soft launch when it’s 50% off food and hit £170 between four with an over abundance of food and wine without touching dessert. Looking at the menu now, a spend of £40 per head for food is about right to leave stuffed and suitably sweetened. I really enjoyed Tropea, which leans more on a stylised version of Italian food over the more traditional versions found throughout the city. More importantly it’s exactly what Harborne needs; affordable, modern cooking using good quality ingredients and a kitchen that takes no shortcuts. Twelve minutes walk in the right direction from my road to the petrol blue restaurant opposite the swimming baths. I’m feeling pretty smug about that right now.