From about 2005-2013 (last week – I had to Wiki it), I used to think that Gino D’Acampo wasn’t really Italian. He seemed TOO Italian, right? Too satin-shirty, too teeth-glint shiny. Italians, despite their Stallion-painted status, are robust, sensory, in touch with the earth – and its fruits – men. Men like Antonio Carluccio, restaurateur and one-half of the endearing ‘Two Greedy Italians’ with buddy Gennaro. It was this authenticity I wanted to see when I went to the Norwich branch of Carluccio’s 57-strong chain of restaurants, and what I wanted to taste in every morsel.
Deli counters, dry stores of artisan carbs, neat border of exquisite tarts and gift-wrapped delicacies make getting to the restaurant part of Carluccio’s Norwich bolthole a feat in itself. It took all of my willpower not to buy 4 meringues from their deli section and hightail it home. But the restaurant was bright, busy, and inviting…
Mozzarella Dell’Isola // Calamari Fritti
Mozzarella Dell’Isola is Italy in a mouthful. Salty parma ham, creamy melting mozzarella, juicy peppers and earthy rocket. I doubt the dish was much more of an assembly job, but like the Aristotelian logic dictates, and clearly Carluccio’s law abides, some things are greater than the sum of their parts. Deep fried squid and garlic mayo – child’s play, is it? Having made a spazzy hash of making it myself the night before, Carluccio’s were the redeemers. Simple, but it’s deep-fried guilty goodness.
THE MAIN EVENT:
Penne Giardiniera // Brasato di Manzo
I’m good to you. Me and the other half base our menu choices purely on the breadth of specifications you folk may have for your own meal choices – one pasta, one veggie, one meaty, one creamy, combined in two dishes that would show the range in the menu. You can thank us later. The Brasato is a slow cooked beef stew, benefitting from the tang of floating olives and soaked up by the plump grilled polenta. Foodie confession: I’d never tried polenta before; maybe I’m not down with the gruel kids, but it never appealed. I’m happy to say as long as you got your stew gravy / cornmeal ratio right, it was hearty and good. Not just superfluous and wanky like bloody quinoa. Then the pasta dish, the Giardinieri; I could have written a page on it alone – it was one of the nicest pasta dishes I’ve ever had. Grated courgette, fried spinach balls, a gleaming vat full of garlicky butter. Like the starter, it mocked you with its simplicity, but delivered that authenticity I was searching for.
Pasticcio di Cioccolato
Bread and butter pud, init. With ribbons of chocolate running throughout, and bobbing like a lilo on a thin pool of crème anglaise. Nice enough, but I’d already given my heart to the buttery pasta.
A word to the wise – I’m no wine buff, but think against the house bottle of Sicialian Sicani. It has a bouquet of old teeth.
Picking à la carte, prices are average, if a little steep for the Mozz starter, but for THAT pasta, at just £8.25m it’s a steal – and knowing that 50p of that particular dish gets donated to Action Against Hunger, makes digestion even easier. There’s also a regular Prix Fixe of 2 courses for £9.95.
Valentine’s is coming – what, you hadn’t noticed? Whilst for me, the celebration can be punctuated by me vomiting against every Clinton’s Cards I see, many of you ruddy love it. For a week in Feb, Carluccio’s are running a 4-course V-Day menu for £25, and if they courses are as good as these, it’s a safe bet – you give them authentic Italian for an evening… and who knows what they’ll give you in return…