Wouldn’t you know it? You wait years for one Italian restaurant to come along and then two turn up within 20 yards of one another.
Carluccio’s is finally doing for the Met Quarter what the upmarket shopping centre has needed for some time. It presents a bright, breezy and busy style to a part of Liverpool that has frequently seemed to be in a weird city-centre hinterland; slap bang in the middle but nowhere simultaneously.
Antonio Carluccio is an Italian chef and gourmand frequently seen striding around Tuscany on BBC2 in the 90s. He’s a bit old school – all big flavours and bluster, eating pig’s heads and truffles and cheese crawling with maggots, quaffing red wine while he’s at it; not immediately similar to Jamie Oliver, who’s also opened an Italian across town, to very mixed reviews. But it’s hard not to warm to Carluccio.
But what of his restaurant? Well it’s perfectly pleasant – quite airy and clean and bright. The menus are fairly predictable – and there’s a separate pasta menu-cum-brochure explaining the idea behind various dishes and a deal menu to boot, promising three courses for not very much.
The dishes are not a long way away from Bellini’s down the road, but there’s more of an emphasis on pasta which, at Bellini’s, you feel is included somewhat grudgingly.
It feels like the sort of place good for a quick dinner before the theatre, or a friendly inexpensive joint that might suit a birthday meal.
It’s perfect for pre-theater, which is good as we’re off to the theatre afterwards, so we eschew anything too complicated or time-conuming and go for two pasta dishes on the basis that a place like Carluccio’s should be able to produce excellent Italian staples. Can it?
It’s certainly capable of it. The Giardiniera – penne with courgette and baked balls of spinach with parmesan and garlic – at £8.25 is full of flavour, light and thoroughly tasty. Carluccio says he invented it for a vegetarian friend in search of a hearty meal – it ticks that box perfectly.
In search of another quick, simple meal we choose a Pasta con Funghi (£7.95), apparently with shiitake, porcini, oyster and button mushrooms with papardelle. Frankly it undoes all of the good work done by the Giardiniera.
It doesn’t seem to be seasoned; it contains a very small amount of slimy, leathery, tasteless mushrooms; the dry pasta is veering towards undercooked and the only flavour is akin to the oily, watery soup found at the bottom of a bowl of supernoodles. It’s absolutely horrible.
What does this tell us about Carluccio’s? Arguably not much, and this hardly qualifies as a thorough review of what is a large menu that seems determined to cater for any taste, presuming it’s Italian.
But such an awful dish hardly bodes well. Perhaps it was an off-day – or an off-dish. We’ll be back for a more thorough inspection, but the real quality of Carluccio’s remains a mystery for now.