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Restaurant review: The Italian Club Fish

AA Grill is hooked as the city's newest fish caffe gets packed to the gills

Published on January 14th 2010.

Restaurant review: The Italian Club Fish

DESPITE Liverpool's maritime tradition, fish restaurants are almost unknown here. Maybe that's not surprising, seeing as until very recently the thing you were most likely to catch in the Mersey was typhoid.

Yet all the fish in Fleetwood is a flit up the M6, so we really should do better. For years there was just one, hidden down a back alley in the business district. Jenny's Seafood Restaurant was one of the bigger fishes in the rather small tank that was Liverpool's dining out scene, along with the Oriel and La Grande Bouffe. It must have opened in about 1953, and there it stayed, only serving its final sturgeon around the time the rest of the city's restaurant trade began to burgeon.

Now the mantle has been taken up by The Italian Club Fish which, you may not be surprised to learn, is under the same ownership as The Italian Club, with a mere couple of hundred metres separating the two on Bold Street. With a cousin's Italian outfit, Il Forno, around the corner on Duke Street, that part of town could become a right Little Italy. Except the Culture Police would insist we call it the Italian Quarter, to go with all their other quarters.

The Italian Club Fish is the product of proprietor Rosaria Crolla's culinary lineage. Her father, an Italian chef living in Glasgow, cooked for the rich and the poor and his daughter's place lies somewhere between the aristocracy and the chippy. Here, the oyster has been democratised: no longer the preserve of the privileged, a tenner at TICF buys you half a carafe of house white and half a dozen oysters, fresh and shiny as dew at daybreak, with tabasco and shallot vinegar.

The Italian Club has only been around a couple of years and, practically from day one, has been packing them in like sardines. Perhaps that's what gave them the idea for the fish restaurant or “fish caffe” as they prefer.

There is more room here, while the same spruce-but-loose feel of the original is carried on, plus a few seaside souvenirs – bright, off-white walls featuring Italian harbour scenes; beech, but no beach, underfoot; attractive white wood chairs with wicker seats, piscine pitchers of wine and a big bar you can eat at if you want.Facing front, we watched a pretty good representation of the world going by on Bold Street. One minute a shoal of Japanese tourists, the next a school of cyclists, then a tourist of uncertain origin looking for food. He was turned away with an apology, only for a waiter to go off (successfully) in search when they decided they could squeeze him in after all.

One chap put his head round the door, picked up a candle from a window table, coolly set light to his fag and was on his way again. “That's initiative!” decided one diner.

Open midday to 9.30pm, you can call in for a coffee (£1.50 for a pretty good Americano), or lobster thermidor (£16.95). Although only open a few weeks, the owner of one (very good) rival restaurant says she already uses it as “a pit stop” on the way home.

A fat, gleaming fillet of lemon sole (£10.95) was encased in a dry and delicate batter, alongside OK chips that were just a little short on flavour and had taken just a little too long to reach us. Mushy peas were perfectly good and the tartar sauce needed a little more punch.

Service was a touch eccentric. Our waiter, a highly likeable but callow fellow, called me “mate” and Mrs Grill

“madam”, later referring to her – despite the presence of primary school children – as “your lady friend”.

The key with anything coming out of the sea is to get it on the plate as soon as decently possible. Nothing said this better than saute di Maurizio (£6.75), Chef Pellegrini's signature dish: clams, mussels, cockles, and chunks of firm white fish in a sauce that's so, so good you can't quite believe it is no more than olive oil, garlic, basil, parsley, a dash of chilli and the sweetest, ripest plum tomatoes, all of which we obliterated with slices of toasted ciabatta.

To follow, seafood lasagne (£8.50), which I would not dare order in the majority of Merseyside restaurants for fear of it spoiling my night. Here it was light, simple, tasty and another preservative-free zone, again with whatever fish and shellfish was to hand being thrown into the mix.

Then it transpired the kids' main courses had been overlooked entirely, a matter that could have had disastrous consequences for our fellow diners' eardrums.

Fortunately, a rare display of patience was rewarded with better chips, straight from the pan, and excellent fish goujons (£4.50) – proper pieces of skin-on fish inside the same batter the grown-ups get, with a dressed green salad on the side, a welcome alternative to the children's menu staple of baked beans.

The lady friend's tiramisu (£4.25) base was on the stiff side, but the rest was piped thick, generous and light as a feather with a good shot of coffee. Meanwhile I had quite the dreamiest warm chocolate and almond cake, with almond praline and cream (£4.25).

My first look at the menu had caused the heart to sink ever so slightly at the words “for non-fish lovers”, closely followed by “steak and chips”.

The only words I would have for non-fish lovers in a fish restaurant are GO SOMEWHERE ELSE. The same hedged bets apply, but more so, to the children's menu where two out of three choices (all £4.50) are meat.

These are rare instances of the head defeating the heart in a place where passion, not profit, appears to be the driving force.

Maurizio Pellegrini's cooking at both branches of The Italian Club look set to make him a heavyweight in Merseyside food circles. You only have to look at his mussels.

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: Don't be daft.

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

Coley MinogueApril 21st 2009.

Have you got a fat arse then?

BaitApril 21st 2009.

Why has your fork been irradiated? Pic bottom right. Did a Hake-bomb drop on it?

Aunt ChovyApril 21st 2009.

Well you know what Dig always said about that: Any bream will do

Captain BirdseyeApril 21st 2009.

Well, I'll certainly give it a try. It's been some time since I've shucked an oyster.......

Fish mmmmmmApril 21st 2009.

This looks like a lovely restaurant. Good review too. I will be giving it a go.

John DoryApril 21st 2009.

But Mr. Grill, please don’t knock the non-fish options! I love eating fish, but some establishments draw no distinction between fish (which are vertebrates) and sewage-eating crustaceans that certainly aren’t fish. They put waste prawn seepage into sauces for fish, causing me painful stomach cramps and several urgent journeys to a lavatory within the hour if I eat the stuff. If I can’t get a pure and simple, well-prepared fish in a restaurant, I go for the meat option too. Incidentally, I believe that both Jews and Muslims can’t eat crustaceans presented as ‘fish’ either.

Pop TartApril 21st 2009.

Don't want to mussel in and at risk of appearing shelfish...... did we like or not like?

Dick EmeryApril 21st 2009.

Ooh you are awful!

DigApril 21st 2009.

Not just a dab hand. I also have a whale of a time.

Boil in the Bag KipperApril 21st 2009.

Dig I hope the Old Trout you are referring to is not the Pilchard Woman in a Pinnie that you dined with on your blind date courtesy of the Salmons woman?

DigApril 21st 2009.

Ok Ok I'll say it then. Don't you mean 'passing this plaice?'. You were all thinking it.

DigApril 21st 2009.

The old trout I pulled is a backing singer in a band. She's asked me to join. I'm going to play the bass in their sole band. The lead singer is quite famous already, a guy called John Dory. He did a duet with Fish from Marillion a while back.

Cardinal CrimsonApril 21st 2009.

"The lady friend's tiramisu base was on the stiff side, but the rest was piped thick, generous............"Good gracious Grill, you're entering murky territory here, I have choir boys who like to access my laptop - ahem - and such double-entendre laden offerings will have the disconcerting effect of making their, exceedingly nimble digits, more eager than ever. If one didn't know better, it would be easy to imagine the normally refined Grill had gone down-market, and had taken up with that gluttonous and sordid purveyor of filth, and serial abuser of the the very fragrent Pauline, yes, I refer to none other than that tormentor of tracksuit waistbands, Fat Git. Anyway, I must pop off now, I've just been informed the verger's coming.

Coley McLoughlinApril 21st 2009.

You are a dab hand at this, aren't you?

Luke outApril 21st 2009.

I keep passing this place and it looks good enough to eat. I shall definitely be making a trip!

Michael FishApril 21st 2009.

Dig, you don't pull trout, you tickle them. Apparently the results can be brill.

AnonymousApril 21st 2009.

Is that like the hand of cod in a crusty split?

RayApril 21st 2009.

Come down off your perch Dig and show us your tiddler.

Coley MinogueApril 21st 2009.

Aw shucks!

missApril 21st 2009.

i have walked passed this place many of times, but have never wanted to go in because a lot of the fish on the menu is out of season and also the chairs look very hard and small to sit on.

DigApril 21st 2009.

You shark I was going to say that. I'm floundering now. Can't think of another fish joke. I'll get my skates on and come up with one soon.

DigApril 21st 2009.

The old trout I pulled at the weekend enjoyed my tiddler. What a crazy woman she was too. Not koi at all.

Peter TenchApril 21st 2009.

Dig, if you're not careful with these old trout you'll get fish fingers.

Darius GuppyApril 21st 2009.

As usual with a restaurant in Liverpool, it is the whiting staff that let it down. "Eh mate" indeed!

Mrs GrillApril 21st 2009.

I would say, in all fairness to the charming young man who attended to us, that he was forgiven for any momentary "green at the gills" lapses on the night in question by his cheery banter. It was, after all, Good Friday, and, in mitigation to this end, I suspect they were a bit overwhelmed, by the amount of people who rammed the place. Who said Catholicism was dead? Not in this town.

BaitApril 21st 2009.

It's better than Dig's tiddler

PollockApril 21st 2009.

Stop carping about Grillo. Or eel suffer from tench-un.

DigApril 21st 2009.

Will you lot stop halibutting in and groupering up on me and carping on with your vicious barbs. I didn't really pull an old trout, it was a red herring. I'm getting quite angry. I'm about to snapper. Somebody is close to getting a smackerel.

Rock SammonsApril 21st 2009.

Do they do a 'six of mix' (half-chips half-scallops) for a tanner like the lamented Vaughan's Chippie on Flakner Street used to?

Mrs GrillApril 21st 2009.

Or, on second thoughts, perhaps that should be cheery batter

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