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Restaurant review: The Italian job

Angie Sammons visits Casa Bella in search for some real Italian food

Written by . Published on January 14th 2010.

Restaurant review: The Italian job

The desire to enjoy a decent Italian meal, one which doesn't involve giving your money to a bunch of faceless corporate shareholders, can be a tricky business at the business end of town.

There are many providers of pasta and purveyors of pizza to satisfy the after work crowd, and an ample job most of them do.

But don't imagine that your veal escalope has been dreamed up and executed by a passionate Latin soul who rules his restaurant roost with fire in his belly and madness in his heart. Or that he is waving a big meat cleaver, and may or may not be chasing the kitchen porter, who dishonoured his sister, around the ravioli press as you dine.

For that same meal of veal - and all its pals - is also being served up at clone branches of your restaurant, in places like Alderley Edge, Chester and Knutsford. Satellite dishes for satellite towns.

Where' er you walk, it will taste and look exactly the same; will come from an identical menu, will be served on identical crockery and will be delivered to your identical table by identical staff. OK, that last bit isn't strictly true, but you get the picture.

It's not necessarily a bad thing. Places like Piccolino and Est Est Est are always packed out, presumably because they do what they say on the (pomodori) tin.

But where to go for that zeal and zing, the quirks and whimsy that only a small, individual food concern can provide?

Recovering from a panic attack outside another contender, which we dissed on the grounds that it was completely empty, we sought out the comforting embrace of Casa Bella.

Like many other bars and restaurants in this part of the city, Casa Bella is set in an old banking hall. When the old money sailed from Liverpool for good, these were the places where the new money fluttered in. But Casa Bella is still quite restrained. Its interior is all elegant pillars, marble floors and tables, high ceilings and grand windows. Franco and Sylvia Furlan bought the business seven years ago.

I remember the back streets of Naples, as the song goes, as well as any other Inter-Railer, and after ordering starters, was just about to embark on some private reverie of yore when our cheery waiter chipped in: “You must want garlic bread with that.”

The eating habits of home die hard, and I was suddenly brought back to Earth, recalling that I've never seen GB outside of GB. This was a pizza base, soft and buttery enough, with some dried rosemary atop, but little in the way of garlic.

Perhaps they were being careful. “Aye, aye, don't go mad,” maybe some customer had warned them in the past.

But I'm probably being too charitable. My Pate Della Casa (£4.95) “home made” may or may not have been: I was too busy staring at the two slices of toasted Warburtons it came with to notice.

My friend fared much better with his shelled king prawns in sweet peppers, chillies and garlic (£8.95). The portion was decent, the prawns were well cooked and made him grateful for my recent change of heart outside Buca Di Bacco.

Was the chicken free range? Yes, yes, I know we trot out this line every time we all go out, but, having not touched chicken in many restaurants for 10 years now, I need to know.

“Yes, yes!” our Italian waiter immediately nodded vigorously, and the nice big glass of Pinot Grigio Fantinel (£16.95 a bottle) shouted “Order it!” down my ear.

My Pate Della Casa, “home made”, may or may not have been: I was too busy staring at the two slices of toasted Warburtons it came with to notice

Pollo Rustica (£12.95) was a flattened breast, the size of my shoe, smothered in bits of frizzy pancetta, cherry tomatoes and mushrooms caramelized in balsamic vinegar. After the garlic bread and the toast it was a manful struggle. The chicken tasted of nowt, not even shoe, so its friends on the plate did all the work. The accompanying usual suspects of al dente broccoli, carrots and cauli did both of us, but did sod all for the dish, I'm afraid, but at least we were getting our three out of five veg.

Rodrigo raved about his monkfish (£14.95). “Cooked to perfection,” he later emails, “in what was a delicate and subtle Pernod sauce”.

“Strawberry cake. On reflection, a mistake,” he adds. “There was little to recommend about it.”

His dessert (£4.95) came from a groaning sweet trolley, a thing I'd somehow forgotten about, along with the backstreets of Naples by now. But it's all homemade, the menu says, and, judging by the elaborateness of the magnificent puds, I added an army of skilled pastry chefs to to my mental kitchen party where already they whip up 15 different kinds of pizza, 20 starters, 19 meat and fish and 16 pasta dishes from scratch, every day.

Casa Bella isn't a bad restaurant by any means, but it needs to smell the espresso, see what its conglomerate rivals are doing better, play to its strengths of location and lovely interior, and offer something memorable, original and befitting on the food front before the corporate vultures swoop in.

So it might be time to get the old meat cleaver ready: on that massive menu, on the old ways.

Like I say, it's a tricky business.

Rating: 14/20
Breakdown: 7/10 Food
4/5 Service
3/5 Ambience
Address: Casa Bella
25 Victoria Street Liverpool L1.
0151 258 1800

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david hewittMay 25th 2007.

Wec have had some super meals here in the past, though not for a month or two.

AnonymousMay 25th 2007.

Casa Bella's a good place to go on a date or something. I did and she was well impressed with the surroundings. Never saw her again though. Was it me?

su pearlMay 25th 2007.

Shame you didn't get in Bacco's. We've never had anything but a brilliant night in there.

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