A few years ago Alexei Sayle gave an interview that was not especially well received on Merseyside. Amongst the criticisms of his home town was the suggestion that Liverpool amounted to a ‘gastronomic wasteland’.
While that may have been harsh, few of our favourite eateries were, at that point, open in the city. Perhaps some of Sayle’s observations still ring true, but Liverpool has improved in leaps and bounds where cuisine is concerned.
Liverpool’s restaurants are not, these days, backwards in coming forwards either. There’s a formidable PR operation behind the city’s eateries, something we’ve mused on before in relation to whether it’s the restaurants that shout the loudest that get the plaudits.
There’s certainly something to that, but we like to believe that quality speaks for itself too. Wirral-based Italian bistro Da Piero – The Good Food Guide’s Best New Restaurant in the UK – eschews any PR and has one of the finest reputations in the area; its seven tables frequently booked up weeks in advance at weekends.
Searching for good food recently – and on a whim – we phoned up to see if there any tables available with a couple of hours’ notice. There’d been a cancellation, excellent. So a trip over to Irby, through the Wallasey tunnel, over the M53 and suddenly into leafy nowhere. You could easily miss Da Piero; it’s plain to the point of being almost anonymous from the outside, a new extension has a UPVC door.
Inside the theme continues, the ambiance gives nothing away. Tables are covered in white linen; chairs look like they could come from a hotel conference suite. Other decoration – a few Mediterranean-themes pictures and fresh flowers – are fairly sparse. Perhaps the lack of flair in the decor is something of a statement of intent: “we’re all about the food here” it might say.
Yet the place immediately feels welcoming thanks to the subdued lighting and warm welcome. Host Dawn is happy to dispense advice on dishes and chats about the weather and where we’ve come from. The dishes, she says, are ‘generous’ so we order with that in mind.
Melanzane alla Parmigiana (£8.90) – aubergine bake with mozarella and parmesan – is a substantial and flavoursome dish but it’s the Nido di Gamberi di Fiume (£7.90), crayfish tails with rocket in a dressing of oil, garlic, lemon and chilli that mark out Da Piero as something special. It’s a generous dish – with the crusty bread provided it would be an ample supper – but the freshness, lightness and combination of flavours are an absolute delight.
Da Piero is, perhaps, not the best place to eat for vegetarian mains. There are three pasta dishes – all under ten pounds – for non-meat eaters but the pasta is freshly made and well-judged; just the right side of al dente.
We go for two side dishes, some creamed potatoes with parmesan (£3.90) and the intriguing Broccoli al Vino Rosso (£5.90) – broccoli ‘drowned; in red wine, having been soaked in extra virgin olive oil. A veggie could do far worse than select a few of the side dishes.
Our main is Cotolette della Nonna Emma (£16.50), two beef escalopes coated in herby breadcrumbs, accompanied by a wedge of lemon and rocket. The beef is superb and just needs a little encouragement from the lemon and the herbs in the breadcrumbs to bring it alive. It’s so simple, yet so tasty.
Flavours are what Da Piero is all about; from the freshness of the ingredients to their combinations. The food speaks for itself. The dishes are well-priced and ample. Few meals are flawless, if they exist at all – perhaps the cotolette could have been more crispy, the linguine a little less oily and the potatoes a little more seasoned (salt and pepper and not available at tables) – but that would be finding fault for the sake of it.
The overall experience is wonderful – and comfortably worth the 30-minute trek from over the water. We didn’t even have deserts and the anguish of deciding which dishes to forego was painful indeed. Believe the lack of hype – Da Piero is brilliant.
Da Piero, Mill Hill Road, Irby