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Restaurant review: Pietra

AA Grill has high hopes dashed as he visits an old Italian with a new name

Published on February 3rd 2011.

Restaurant review: Pietra

WE had been to Pietra before, except back then it was Antonelli's, an Italian restaurant with no pretensions and unexceptional food, but Italian staff and a good old-fashioned Italian welcome.

I was about to send it back when Mrs Grill intervened, sensing what the English fear more than poverty and death – a scene. 'After all,' she soothed, 'things can only get better.' Sadly, just like 1997, her optimism was misplaced

Now the place has been treated to a rebranding, which means a new name, Pietra, with its hint of posh, and a new look; polished wood, plain colours and sparing decoration – less is modish.

The food is still Italian (the staff, by the sound of it, are not) but no longer any old Italian, instead “modern Italian cuisine”. All in all, a rather self-conscious attempt to create what some would have you call “a fine dining experience”.

As dining experiences go, this was most definitely not fine. Handsome is as handsome does, as my grandmother used to say, and no amount of Dulux non-drip can gloss over service that was shambolic and food that was – if we're being kind – erratic.

I desperately hoped to enter 2011 on an upbeat note so let's start with some positives. The waiting staff, generally speaking, were friendly and willing; the fish we tried, from fleets in Morecambe Bay, was meaty and flavoursome; bread, baked in the kitchen, good with a gentle crunch.

It's a shame that for every plus, there seemed to be a minus; the staff were badly instructed, if they had been instructed at all; the fish too familiar with the inside of the pan; the bread a little too charred around the edges. We visited between Christmas and New Year, not the easiest time for restaurants, and then there was all that snow. But if you are not prepared, you don't open the doors. This could have been a much better experience, but more of that later.

A growing sense of disgruntlement began with the wine. We were delighted to see so many Italian wines names on the list, less than delighted by a bottle of Montepulciano D’Abruzzo which wasn't exactly undrinkable but then neither is aftershave.

Fifteen quid ought to be enough to buy something that does not cause your mouth to involuntarily form a grimace. The waiter didn't ask if we would like to taste it, perhaps fearing our response, or perhaps because it had been missed off his training programme.

I was about to send it back when Mrs Grill intervened, sensing what the English fear more than poverty and death – a scene. “After all,” she soothed, “things can only get better.” Sadly, just like 1997, her optimism was misplaced.

Olives (£2.50) were all right – standard, supermarket-shelf green and black, pitted and plentiful – as was bruschetta classica (£3.50), two slices of that oven-baked bread and a pile of not-quite-ripe-enough cherry tomato halves.

We had said we wanted to share but, alas, no plates. Having failed to hail a waiter – despite the presence of no more than a dozen other diners – I went off in search, at which point I encountered a member of staff and informed him of our plateless plight. “Yes, “he said, in the manner of a headmaster berating a slow witted child,, “we are bringing some to you.” Thrown by this assertive approach to customer relations, I returned to my seat, temporarily subdued.

The plates arrived soon after. That was the good news. The bad news was that two out of four were dirty around the edges. The menu differed from those we had previously encountered in Italian restaurants. Maybe it was the “modern” style. Then again.

“Primi”, normally associated with starters, comprised pasta and risotto, in main course portions, while “contorni” - side dishes – offered little other than bruschetta or, puzzlingly, small pizza.

Unless Madam would prefer dough balls with her fish. Chips might have been preferable but had “run out”, we were told.. “Which is a shame,” added our tattooed waiter, sympathetically. Peeling a potato was evidently not an option.

“The starters make quite good side dishes,” he suggested.

Finally, good news, the kitchen could rustle up a dish of mixed vegetables. The not-so-good news is they brought four of them. The boys question the need for vegetables at the best of times, they certainly weren't having them as an accompaniment to their Christmas-night-out pizza.

In keeping with Pietra's unconventional style of service, the menus were left with us. Luckily there was a handy shelf above our seats, which solved the problem of them taking up a third of the table space.

Ribs – or, “half a rack of succulent pork ribs served in our own home-made barbecue sauce” (£5.75) – were “not the best” our nine-year-old noted diplomatically. Fleshy and limp, noted Mrs Grill, “like a cold handshake”.

They came with no finger bowl, nor one for the finished ribs. I was keen to point this out but the fresh prospect of embarrassment loomed, and so once more I was sent off on a crockery hunt.

Chicken livers (£5.95, pictured above) were fried with baby onions in brandy and “drizzled” with a French mustard sauce. They came submerged in their muddy brown gravy: chicken livers as swamp creatures as imagined by Stephen King. But the real horror came when Mrs Grill cut into one, exposing an interior that appeared nearer to life than death; not the pink-towards-the-centre result of gentle contact with the pan, but the vibrant, pulsating, all-over colour that you associate with raw meat. Those livers that had acquired a little more colour were so bitter as to be unpalatable.

Had anybody asked us if everything was all right, we would have shared this information, but sadly this had to wait until the plates were being cleared away.

Calabrian-style lamb cutlets, (£14.95) had a nice layer of fat, which is a good thing. Even if you don't eat it, the fat has done its work flavouring and tenderising the meat. They had been marinated in oregano, chilli, lemon and garlic, the first robust enough to announce its presence, the last two rather overpowered by the chilli. In Nigella's version of the same dish, the pan juices are poured over the meat; no such luck here.

The lack of discernible character in accompanying “roasted new potatoes” might have been less noticeable had they actually been roasted. They were boiled. I was dissuaded, by Mrs Grill, from asking for this to be rectified on the grounds that it was “too late to roast them now, anyway”.

The vegetables – squash, carrot and the like – roasted and served with raisins for added sweetness, were really rather good. They ought to put them on the menu. As a side dish.

The pizzas get top billing at Pietra, but for all their claims of the best ingredients, the finest wood-fired, stone-based oven, they were no match for those now served as standard elsewhere.

The boys' pizzas came from the children's menu (£3.95 each). That they could have watched two episodes of Dennis and Gnasher waiting for the bases to be taken away for cooking – to which they had added toppings of their choice – did not help. It isn't like they were overstretched. The pizzas, if anything, were understretched, which might account for their thick, white-bread like texture.

Halibut (£17.95), grilled in a paste of olive oil, garlic, parsley and basil, with shallots and parmesan, was a pretty hefty piece of fish, but had still managed to have lose much of its moisture by the time it reached us.

The kitchen's only input into the desserts, a pretty toothsome twosome of custard tart and some sort of chocolate log-cake, was to take them out of their box. The waiter, who confirmed that they were made elsewhere, handed out spoons, no forks, and more grimy casualties from what appeared to have been a badly-loaded dishwasher.

We were preparing to settle up when the people behind us were being informed of that night's specials, information we had not been privy to. Maybe it was oversight, or maybe we were not considered the “special” sort.

Pietra looks the part and ought to be the setting for a good night out. The kitchen needs to smarten up its act – though home-baked bread and thoughtfully-sourced fish is a sign of good intent – but the major problem is with the service. Many people will put up with average food if the service is exceptional. It's not entirely the waiting staff's fault; they need to be adequately prepared for the job, and for homework they should watch Michel Roux's Service for a masterclass in front-of-house finesse.

When I went to pay the bill I noted that the chicken livers had not been charged for, and the manager expressed his regret that we had failed to enjoy them. Nor were we charged for the vegetables or the desserts, which was a helpful gesture.

“We want you to come back.” said the manager, ruefully. There are some things, however, that refunds cannot buy.

Rating: 8/20
Breakdown: 4/10 food
1/5 service
3/5 ambience
Address: Pietra
15-19 South Road
Waterloo, Liverpool
L22 5PE

0151 949 0886

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: 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: Gordo gets carried away

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9 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

DigJanuary 27th 2011.

Disgusting looking chicken livers again? I hope you get danger money.

Tricky WooJanuary 28th 2011.

As Grill is keen to point out in his review, I think they mean well. Hopefully they will learn from this.

Liver birdJanuary 28th 2011.

Great to see Grill telling it like it is. Or rather the camera!

AnonymousJanuary 28th 2011.

I just hope the chicken those livers came out of managed to pull through after the transplant.

La Professori ChucklebuitoniJanuary 28th 2011.

And now for the pietra resistance... by the sound of it, they should change the name back to AuntyNelly's.

Bon ViveurFebruary 8th 2011.

Restaurants in places like Liverpool have got away with bad service for years and nobody likes picking a waiter up again and again because it just ruins the night. It is AS important as the food.

saladdazeFebruary 8th 2011.

That Michel Roux should come up here and work his wonders. From ASBO to Mirabeau, that's the way to do it.

AnonymousFebruary 11th 2011.

you people are not big and are not clever.Maybe some of the restranteurs should stumble into your humble abode and check out the pleasantries on offer,i'm sure we would have a field day .STUCK UP AND PADANTIC COME TO MIND

Auntie PastoeSeptember 28th 2011.

'Restaurateurs' FFS! 'Pedantic' FFS!

Anonymous! Are you the man who does the signs outside restaurants for "barbeque sauce" and "pan fried mussel's"?

Also your point is invalid in that Mr. and Mrs. Grill do not pass their humble abode off as a restaurant for financial gain.

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