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Restaurant review: Piccolino

AA Grill "celebrates" a birthday with an 0 at Piccolin-o

Published on September 29th 2010.

Restaurant review: Piccolino

AS far as I can see, there are two crumbs of consolation to be salvaged from waking up and finding that you are fifty: 1. There is a marginally better than average chance you will be brought a cup of tea in bed. 2. You are not dead yet.

Mrs Grill tells me how lucky I am because men age so much better than women. Yes, Mrs G, and they die a lot sooner too. Tell you what, I'll swap you – my complexion for your extra 10 years of breathing. Deal or no deal?

Today is the first day that we have made own own pasta, the waiter announced with some pride. Had we all been in Sorrento, I suspect this may have been more a source of shame. But this is Liverpool and I was grateful for a chef who cares

It was thus in not the best frame of mind that I met up with Baz, long-time sparring partner and a fellow novice into the order of reluctant semi-centenarians, there being 10 days between our birthdays. We went to Piccolino to comfort each other and play that game which is supposed to give solace to the ageing: Would You Really Want To Be 21 Again?

Yes and no was my answer. I wouldn't mind some of that energy, not to mention the decades stretching ahead, death such a distant prospect it was not on the agenda at 21. But I would skip the cheap velvet jacket, the residual acne, the crippling self-doubt. Back then, I could have used a little arrogance, a word the low in self-esteem use to make themselves feel better about the self-assured.

I felt old before I even got through the door of Piccolino, but in a good way. A pile of lads were piling out – and as they raced off to reach their next drink I remembered another good reason not to be 21, and gave thanks that I was no longer required to stand at the edge of a dance floor on a Friday night, awaiting the onset of the sad tosser's triumverate: inebriation, rejection, regurgitation.

You can get a drink and move on from Piccolino, or you can hang around, catering as they do for the “premium casual market“ which means you can wear those dirty old trainers but it's still going to cost you. On two floors, in the city's business belt, the Liverpool branch is dressed in its finest premium casuals, a handsome interior enhanced by wooden panelling, a brass-railed balcony, nifty spotlights.

They have a new chef there. From Sorrento. A real Italian cook who does real Italian cooking. Sorrento is Naples censored for family viewing. We went there once; in the town centre I enquired of a waiter at a smart-looking restaurant if it would be all right to bring in a six-month-old child in his six-month-old pushchair, and he looked at me like I'd asked if they did food there.

In another place, with seafood prepared in Paradise, the owner took our child in her arms and held him aloft like the World Cup. “Belissimo, belissimo,” she declared.

At Piccolino, they like to pretend you really are in Italy. When you arrive they greet you first in Italian, with an English translation: “Bona sera, good evening.”. It's like putting on a Linguaphone CD while you prepare dinner. They take your order: “grazie mille, thank you very much.”

I had tried to warn Baz not to go near the asparagus (£6.70), it being three months since a spear appeared on English soil. It's proving rather resistant, he complained, Yes, and wouldn't you, I said, if you had travelled all that way for someone to stab you repeatedly. Happily, the attendant pecorino cheese and a nice oozy egg wiped the scowl from his face.

The specials were looking good, the new chef's opportunity to stamp his own style on a menu devised at Piccolino HQ and replicated in its 20-odd outlets. From among them I had sardine agrodolci (£6.95), gorgeous roasted fillets, rich and melting, with a highly complementary sweet and sour pine nut and raisin dressing. Then lobster (£18.95) caught in Scottish waters and simply grilled over charcoal. Sweet and fresh, with a gently meaty texture, it was served with rings of squid, a handful of petit pois and lovely buttery scialiatelli, ribbon-like pasta, made in the kitchen that morning. Maximum flavour achieved with minimum fuss.

Today is the first day that we have made own own pasta, the waiter announced with some pride. Had we all been in Sorrento, I suspect this may have been more a source of shame. But this is Liverpool and I was grateful for a chef who cares.

Three lamb cutlets flavoured with chilli, rosemary and lemon (£17.50) came with just themselves for company. Baz thought they were great, as they ought to be for that kind of money. He was asked if he wanted them pink or well done, the chef probably figuring that you can either cook them right or ruin them properly. Baz, ever keen to go his own way, requested medium: they came pinkish and perfect. Sides of chips (£3), mixed salad (£3.60) and rosemary potatoes (£3) were average, good and excellent, in that order.

For pudding, handmade chocolate truffles flavoured with hazelnut liqueur (six for £3) and – another winner from among The Special Ones – a dark chocolate panna cotta with warm black berries and chestnut honey (£5.75). With this kind of quality on show, you expect good coffee; instead, Illy's bid for world domination has claimed another scalp.

Bar a couple of tiny niggles, this was a very good meal indeed, so much so I had almost forgotten to be depressed about my age. And then the bill arrived and it was £124, which is about as premium as premium casual gets and looked more like London prices, except Piccolino's prices in the capital are even higher.

I noticed our quick glass of wine for the road had set us back £14. How can this be? I asked. They are large ones, said the waiter. We didn't ask for large ones. Unless you state otherwise, he explained, it is assumed you will want large ones. Why? Because we are English and laugh in the face of moderation?

The waiter shrugged and knocked four quid off the total. I still complained to Baz afterwards. “Even for large ones, that's seven quid a throw for a very average sauvignon blanc,” I droned. “I remember when you could get a large glass of wine at the best restaurant in town for, oooh . . .”

Baz cut me off. “You are beginning,” he said, “to sound like an old bastard.”

Roll on death.

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind in the area: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this, the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20: Don't be daft.

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RasputinOctober 2nd 2009.

New chef, lady. Always a good reason to go back.

sheila cogginsOctober 2nd 2009.

my friends and i visited the bristol branch of this chain and were wowed out. we were given total personal treatment. the head waiter saw all our requirements were met promptly. the food was outstanding, prepared and cooked infront of us in the 'open' kitchen. however, when visiting the liverpool branch and expecting similar we found the service'cold' the food lacking flavour and when complained about the 'no chilli flavour in the chilli pasta our comments were just brushed aside with no apologies. we were bitterley dissapointed and probably wont return.

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