Prego, Liverpool 1, Italian.
PREGO. The word is Italian for welcome but the last time I heardanything like it, a shiver shimmied down my spine. Office phone trills, Wigan circa 1987, and I pick up.
“Hi, it’s Andrea”.
“Sorry, Andrea who?”
“You know, from the Market Tavern?”
Oh yeah, I knew. One of the barmaids. Married but accommodating. A.woman with “a pretty foot, a cherry lip, a bonny eye and a passing,pleasing tongue” to quote The Bard.
“What’s up babes?”
“It’s a mess.” Silence for a few seconds.
The pint-pulling pie-eater explains further, “Thing is, I’m preggo”.
I literally recoil with horror from the handset as braincells startcartwheeling. I know this local expression.
“Er, do you mean….? But you’re married, right?”
Cold sweat forms, adrenalin starts pulverising the body.
“Well, yeah, but you know he’s on the rigs, and has been for two months. Thatleaves, well, a few possibilities……..including you.” How reassuring.
After an unpleasant week or so it became clear it was a phantom pregnancydesigned to elicit cash from anyone mug enough to cough up. Needless tosay I changed my boozing venue.
It was about time. The jukebox was permanently stuck on The Final Countdownand the first Mrs Turnbull’s macabre presence occasionally haunted the place.
The unpleasant memory sprang to mind as I headed for the Liverpool One Pregoon a cold, slate-grey, November afternoon threatening an imminentdownpour.
I was dressed in naught a t-shirt but, hey, I’m from theNorth East ya kna? Anyone up there out on the town caught wearing acoat even in Arctic temperatures would be considered a wuss and thatincludes the women.
Just the kind of day for a plate of comfort food I mused, entering themodern, spacious Italian that has Chavasse Park as its front garden.
The menu is varied with a balance between pasta dishes and traditionalsouthern Italian fare created using a charcoal Josper oven, apparently the Rolls Royce of cookers.
It has recently been the place of choice for Sex and the City’s Kim Catrall, according to their publicity. A glamorous celebrity.
My companion, a dour looking man who had arrived hunched against thecold, set about the black coffees as if he had been up on an all night bender. Just tiredness, it transpired.
After a good gander at the menu I thought it would be a reasonable shout to try some of the Josper-inspired dishes – Antipasto Di Verdure – roasted Mediterranean vegetables with Calabrian virgin olive oil dressing(£8.95).
Meanwhile my lugubrious fellow diner chose crab and haddock fish cakes with aioli (£6.95).
While we were waiting for the starters, the helpful waitress arrivedwith good homemade bread and olive oil (£2.95) to whet the appetite.
As we picked at the bread it suddenly struck me that there had beensomething missing when I had entered the premises. I recalled a scenein Du Maurier’s story of The Birds when a character observed thatdespite the presence of countless winged creatures, there was astrange, disquieting silence. It wasn’t a flock of mad seagulls thatwas missing here but the unmistakable aroma of garlic, olive andtomatoes one associates with an Italian diner. That glorious whiff is a comforting signal that a busy kitchen is on the go.
The roasted vegetable dish was soon placed before me, a rumblingstomach awaiting. It comprised a medley of veg with aubergine the mostprominent example. I tucked in to discover an unpalatable mouthful – cold. In fact, stone cold.
I immediately summoned the waitress who said she would check with thekitchen. On her return she explained the dish was supposed to be served cold – so much for the benefits of the super charcoal oven.
For me personally, it was inedible and the menu should be much clearer on this point.
I’ve done roasted veg a lot of times but it’s never crossed the radarto leave it in the fridge for a few hours before dishing up. Bizarre. And£8.95? Blimey……
However, to give our waitress her due she didn’t even question myposition and straight away asked if I would like another starter. Thesort of situation some top places on Ramsay’s Best Restaurantprogramme fail to recognise when faced with an awkward customer, sofull marks there.
Meanwhile me laddie across the table was picking rather unenthusiastically at his food.
The fishcakes were unlike anything we had seen before. A strangemilky colour, an odd, odd springy, latex texture and lacking in any discernible flavour. Thiswasn’t going well.
And so to my replacement starter, foie gras pate with crostini andcaramelised red onions (£7.95), a great French delicacy. ChefJean-Joseph Clause is credited for creating and popularising pâté defoie gras in 1779. Chef Clause’s culinary genius was rewarded a giftof 20 pistols by King Louis XVI , and he obtained a patent for thedish in 1784
I’m afraid the version produced here is more likely to have had themaker shot. It is supposed to have a creamy, velvet texture, a rich andalluring delight. This reminded me of a block of pate found on anysupermarket shelf.
Things can only get better I guess and they did to some extent. Ishould point out that in terms of the main course we thought we would try thecurrent offer of £5.95 for any pasta dish.
This turned out to be good value for my Tagliatelle Italian Job(usually £10.95) which was a generous plateful of pasta, tiger prawns,saffron and roasted peppers.
The colourful crustaceans danced a jig of delight on the tastebuds,easily the highlight of the day.
My companion’s Linguine Putanesca (usually £7.95) was a combination ofolives, anchovies, garlic and chilli but lacked a bit of bite, he said. This had been “blitzed into an oily semi-smoothness, and the salty, chilli kick of properputanesca was completely absent,” he said.
At this point in the proceedings, a third diner, his friend, stepped into the frame. She ordered Entrecote Bosciaiola (£17.95),an aged 9oz Welsh sirloin, a cut she picked for its flavour above the more popular fillet. It came from that Josper oven in a good, deep and smokey pancetta and mushroom sauce that engulfed it and the plate.
The thick beef was the medium side of the requested medium rare until she reached the centre where some pink dawned. This was itself a somewhat manful task as all along the journey in she had described the flesh as chewy and tense. Maybe it hadn’t been hung long enough, she mused, or perhaps the creature it came from had met its maker “via a run-in with the Aberystwyth Taliban”.
Side orders of boulderous sauteed potatoes in lots of rosemary (£2.95) were soft rather than crunchy “boiled that had seen the flash of the saute pan,” she said. But they were more remarkable than the small bowl of mangetout, cauli florets and shards of carrot (£2.95).
We tucked into profiteroles (£4.95) with a creamy chocolate sauce and some ice cream. I also had a small, drinkable glass of Sangiovese (£3.95) from a very extensive wine list.
The lady ordered a warmed chocolate brownie (£4.25) which she described as perfectly baked “crunchy on the outside and soft and gooey on the inside”, but said it could have done with more actual chocolate and less sugar. A difficult-to-please woman, I noted, and not for the first time.
A proverbial game of two halves really. poor showing initially but therestaurant managing to pull back a consolation goal or two later on.
The non-pasta menu looks most appealing with lobster, chateaubriand andtornado rossini all featuring to show off the skills of the Josper.
So all in all, service good, decent atmosphere but thosestarters – oh, dear, I’m not a celebrity, get me out of here!