There comes a point in the annual Christmas shopping mission when heels are dug in and there is a stone-cold refusal to proceed any further. What little willingness there is to go in and out of overheated, overcrowded and overpriced shops disappears like snow off a dyke. Sustenance is demanded – and good sustenance at that.
Luckily, we were near Carluccio’s. The genial TV chef has a small empire of restaurants around the country, each of them adhering to his mantra of MOFMOF – minimum of fuss, maximum of flavour. Banish all thoughts of cardboard burgers and tasteless, gloopy sauces coating flabby pasta when you go here for fast food.
This is how Italians do Italian food. There are two bar areas where you can have a speedy espresso or opt for their small plates (three for £10 or £3.95 each). Your meal can be quick and easy or long and lingering – either way, you won’t feel harried to get in and get out.
In true Italian style, children and families are warmly welcomed. At the next table a young artist was making the most of his complimentary colouring pencils, although he was making just as much of an artistic endeavour with his plate of pasta and selection of breadsticks.
Diving straight in – almost before my coat was off in fact – we ordered. Yes, it is a cliché to go for garlic bread in an Italian restaurant – but there’s garlic bread and there’s garlic bread.
Forget all those cheap, doughy supermarket baguettes with some chemically flavoured margarine thrown in the middle. This was two slabs of freshly baked foccacia liberally drenched in garlic-infused olive oil with thick slices of fabulous, nutty provolone melting on the top (£4.50).
But no matter how good the garlic bread was, it wasn’t going to stop me from filching bits from Mr Turner’s prawn marinara (£6.50), a delicious concoction of fresh, plump and juicy prawns marinated in olive oil, white wine and fennel seeds, served up with sweet cherry tomatoes and some more of that wonderful foccacia for dipping in the sauce.
Yes, it did get a little messy due to the prawns still having their tails – but it made it easier to pinch them from his plate.
"Banish thoughts of gloopy sauces coating flabby pasta. This is how Italians do Italian food"
The menu has several “seals of approval” marking out Antonio’s Signature Dishes – the foccacia naturally fell into that category, as did the prawns. Given Antonio’s fondness for vegetables, it’s unsurprising that none of the meat or fish dishes have the Signature Seal – but that didn’t stop me plumping for the fegato in padella (£14.95), pan-fried rose calves’ liver served with red onion jam. As with any good calves’ liver, little needs done to it for it to melt in the mouth – the light tang of the balsamic gravy proving a perfect complement.
The onion jam wasn’t my cup of tea. It was a good jam with delicate flavours that just seemed a little underwhelming next to the liver. Mr Turner went for bistecca di manzo (£15.95), a tender, grass-fed, 21-day aged steak that carried absolutely no supplement. We added on broccolini (£3.95) – tenderstem broccoli sautéed with chilli and sliced almonds – and spinaci (£3.50) – spinach with extra virgin olive oil and a lemon wedge.
Both our dishes came with rosemary and garlic roasted potatoes which were overcooked to the point of being burnt. Given that the potatoes accompany all the non-pasta dishes, it would have been obvious that a tray was ruined, and someone should have taken the decision to ditch that batch.
The steak was correctly cooked to order (a feat in itself for many restaurants) but the meat wasn’t much to write home about, for all its provenance. Antonio’s love of vegetables is well documented (several dozen cookbooks stand testament to it) and so, as expected, the sides were fresh and perfectly cooked. The spinach was just wilted and the broccoli tender but still slightly al dente.
We were disappointed that there were no specials on offer and that the autumn/winter menu for Glasgow doesn’t feature as many of our old favourites from previous visits to their Covent Garden flagship store. Of particular puzzlement is the fact that none of Antonio’s amazing pasta sauces, which are for sale in the attached shop, feature anywhere on the menu.
I hope that it’s only because Carluccio’s is offering a special festive menu that specials and wild boar ragu are not available. I look forward to their return after Christmas. We’ll certainly be back to find out.
ALSO ON THE MENU
I was sorely tempted by the penne giardiniera, the giant Pugliese penne served with courgette, chilli and fried spinach balls with Italian cheese and garlic (£9.25). Even the simple act of typing out that sentence is making my mouth water. And pudding proved a bridge too far for us. Instead we settled for some of their expresso and a shot of strega (a herbal liqueur made from fennel and mint which is a wonderful digestif).
It’s frustrating that you can’t taste before you buy – given the reluctance to serve up the pasta sauces on offer – but a whizz round the attached shop is a must. No store cupboard should be without a selection of his puttanesca, vongole or hare sauces (from £3.95). It makes a dreich Tuesday night seem almost bearable if you can rustle up your own little taste of Antonio at home.
Starters £4.95 - £6.50, Main courses £8.50 - £15.95, Puddings £3.75 - £6.60
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