Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Lunching with the Italian Upstairs; the North East''s Most Candid Food Critic - Now Writing Every Friday in the Journal

Newspaper article The Journal (Newcastle, England)

Lunching with the Italian Upstairs; the North East''s Most Candid Food Critic - Now Writing Every Friday in the Journal

Article excerpt

What is it with out of town Italian restaurants? Fratelli's in Ponteland is located above Sainsbury's, Georgio's in Morpeth sits over Pizza Express. On the other side of Morpeth's Market Place, down New Market, is another upstairs Italian with an even less glamorous facade.

It's located above Varleys Fruit Shop, with just an orange sign and a chalked blackboard to guide you to its rather dingy staircase. It all looked rather dodgy: until we reached the top of the stairs.

Suddenly this Italian man leapt towards us, shook my hand like a long-lost friend, kissed Mrs Diner and a startled Granny Diner on the cheek, and patted Little Diner on the head. "It's so good to see you - thanks for coming."

For one terrible moment I feared my secret cover had been blown. Did I know this man? He led us straight to a table by the window, talking all the while and making Little Diner laugh. Moments later I saw him offering a similarly effusive welcome to another family, so I realised this was just a terrific, professional restaurateur who genuinely loves his customers.

His name is Giovanni Marabini - a rotund, jolly man. Everyone in the place seemed happy and Giovanni was clearly at the centre of everyone's good mood. For one delightful hour, we were welcomed into his family.

This isn't romantic, checked-tablecloth Italian, nor is it remotely chic: it's a homely, family joint, with a fresh flower on every table.

As we sat down, Little Diner was given crayons and drawing pad, while we were quickly supplied with a bottle of Chianti (nothing too heavy for lunch, but we couldn't really sit in this ever-so-Italian atmosphere without some red wine in front of us).

The "special lunch menu" was a crumpled photocopy, and even the a la carte had seen better days. But the contents were varied and interesting. And could 2 courses really be offered for PS8.95? Even Granny couldn't believe the value.

She and I ordered from the specials, while Mrs D went a la carte. There wasn't much difference in the price, as during happy hour (12-2 and 5-7pm every day) they offer most pastas and pizzas for just PS4.95.

We ordered mozzarella Francese, which turned out to be a very generous portion of breadcrumbed, deep fried mozzarella with a good, rich tomato sauce, and button mushrooms in garlic and parsley, which rather lacked intensity, though they were certainly fresh. Meanwhile Mrs Diner's choice of baked goat's cheese turned out to be exceptionally good, topped with garlicky tomatoes.

Little Diner was distracted from her drawing by a huge plate of pizza and chips. She generously allowed me to taste both, just for this review, and agreed with me that both were first class. Or, to be more precise, "yummy". The chips were freshly cut and double fried, but each grown-up was only allowed one.

For mains, Mrs D ordered tagliatelle Bolognese, while Granny, eccentrically, went for branzino roulade, a rollup of sea bass, smoked salmon and asparagus (her three favourite ingredients) with a tarragon, mustard and cream sauce. …

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