My bedroom, circa 1982, was never what you’d call appetising. A stark black and white MFI colour scheme, with red acne-softening strip lights and dead foliage, it was like somewhere Bucks Fizz would have hired for a photoshoot when they lost their way and went all Mad Max. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, it usually had me in it.
So imagine my surprise when, thirty years later, I find myself in a flashback – as Prego, Liverpool ONE lovingly recreated the 80s all over again. All I needed was some newsagent’s porn stuffed under the menus and a Kate Bush mirror and I’d have felt quite at home. Sadly, I wasn’t. I was far, far from home. And in a very strange land indeed. Certainly one without wood fired ovens, that’s for sure.
No, Prego doesn’t look good. It looks like a room set in a Belgian home furnishings store.
But it was our good fortune that we’d stumbled upon this hidden gem on a Monday night, when we could order a starter and a main for two, get 50% slashed off our price, and a free bottle of wine thrown in for bravery.
“We’ve been open two years,” sighed our waiter, “and we’re the best Italian restaurant in town, but no-one knows about us. Tell all your friends,” he says.
Tell you what, waiter, I’ll give you 50% off your message, seeing as it’s a Monday: Friends, Prego’s been open two years and no-one knows about them.
You want to know why? It’s the worst Italian restaurant I’ve eaten in.
I’ve only myself to blame. If this was a film, the audience would have already been screaming at me when I was handed the tatty and ripped menus: “The place looks like your bedroom in 1982. It’s been open for two years. On Chavasse Park. And no-one knows about it. Don’t go down into the basement, you frigging idiot.” The signs were there.
But down into the basement we go.
“The chef here is world class. He’s amazing,” purrs our waiter as he brings a bottle of house white (thin and tasteless. Like Victoria Beckham’s anorexic pret-a-porter collection. It was both ‘free’ and ‘overpriced’ at the same time.)
His ministrations threw me. I was only going to have a pizza. But, I thought, let’s try some pasta, and some antipasto and my unfortunate companion can tuck into the pizza. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, for starters, the garlic bread. Thin, dry and curiously metallic it would be better employed, stitched together, as body armour for our brave heroes. The oddest thing is that the restaurant presented this desiccated disc to us on some kind of podium: as if it had won first prize in some otherworldly culinary event.
My starter of mixed antipasto featured a lacklustre selection of sweaty cuts of fatty pig, an apology of olives and some of those pickled, serrated veg that look like the ones you find layered in fancy display bottles in John Lewis gifts. You know, with the labels marked “Not for eating, just to make your kitchen look wank” on them.
Just in case you’ve forgotten, we’re in the hands of a world class chef here. And, according to the restaurant’s website, “Prego Ristorante is the vision of a successful restaurateur from Southern Italy who cares passionately about the place and the food it produces.”
He does? Well maybe he’s out of the country, and his chef’s been deported. Yeah, maybe that’s it.
The Prego Pollo Fritto – chicken in breadcrumbs with barbeque sauce honestly made you re-evaluate Ronald McDonald’s place on the culinary map of the city. These bullets of gristle were burned, dry and unyielding – in another century they’d be used as lead shots in muskets. Although, sadly, we fear they’ll do more damage ingested. Two hours later and I can still feel my stomach pleading with my colon to take them off its hands.
It takes some chutzpah for an Italian restaurant to spectacularly fuck up a pizza. But fair play to Prego, they managed it with style.
You know those stodgy wheels of dough with a scraping of tomato sauce they used to call ‘Pizza’ and flog in Kwik Save, five for a tenner? Prego must have panic-bought them on the last day.
Our Tropical Pizza’s base was a pale, damp, suppurating and foetid: it was like the flesh of that poor girl who was secreted in the drowned car in The Killing. At the edges, the crust raised up like some tectonic disaster, its burned, scarred and lifeless surface like something post apocalyptic – but at the middle, the congealed mass sunk inwards towards an event horizon of sheer terror. I’ve heard of a three cheese pizza. But a three states of matter one? That’s some going.
My Penne Prego was sickly, inauthentic and uninspiring. So it was aptly named. We didn’t have dessert.
As we were finishing up, a bunch of hungry and cheery souls entered and started to peruse the menus. My heart sank for them. It was all I could do to stop myself from going over and telling them to head to Zeligs (edit: which has sadly quietly closed in recent weeks, we’re told), or Pizza Express. Anywhere.
A few months ago, a SevenStreets writer posted a column about how we should be shouting out about Liverpool’s resurgent restaurant scene. I fretted about this at the time but let it go – hey, we’re a broad church. But no, I’m sorry, I have to disagree.
Yes, we have a handful of excellent restaurants in the city – but, honestly, are you using all your fingers to count them? I’m not. Lunch places, maybe, but somewhere great to go for dinner? Er, no, you’ve got me there.
Four lacklustre or plain awful meals in a row confirms my honestly held opinion: this city’s dining scene is at an all time low. That this place is still open, and relatively busy on our evidence, is shocking. Too many restaurants in town right now are either coasting on past glories, getting by on autopilot and auto-defrost, or cynically tarting up lowest-common-denominator ingredients in over-fluffed boudoir settings.
And you know what the most sickening part is? We’re eating in these places.
I’ll not bother giving you its details,