Norwich: Bella Italia (Red Lion Street)

EMMA LEE The restaurant has a nice laid-back and informal feel and the service was faultless - friendly and efficient.


The weather felt very Mediterranean, so it was quite fitting that my friend and I had chosen to eat at an Italian restaurant. Our ultimate destination was actually the Caribbean - well, ok, a showing of Pirates of the Caribbean at the cinema, and we wanted to grab a bite to eat before our hot date with Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom. Norwich has two branches of the Bella Italia chain - in Red Lion Street and Exchange Street. We chose the former, because of its close proximity to Castle Mall.

I hadn't been there for years until recently, but when I was studying at UEA, and it was home to Pizzaland, it was a regular haunt. Looking back, all my favourite restaurants then had two things in common. They were all pizza restaurants and they all did bargain-tastic student offers. My theory that pizza is brain food has yet to be disproved, although my tutors might disagree.

We visited early on a Friday evening, and there were plenty of other customers already there.

We were quickly greeted and shown to a table, ordered a glass of pinot grigio and a lemonade and embarked on deciding what to eat.

The restaurant has a nice laid-back and informal feel and the service was faultless - friendly and efficient.

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They were even happy to provide my friend, who was battling a cold, a cup of hot water for her Lemsip.

Having only been to Italy once, and very fleetingly, how authentic the décor is, I confess I've no idea. But I thought the film posters adorning the walls (La Dolce Vita included) were a nice touch.

There was plenty to choose from on the menu - including an extensive list of Italian reds and whites and beers.

Starter prices began at £3.35 for soup of the day, with options including antipasti misto (£4.75) - a selection of traditionally cured meats with ciabatta bread, rocket and olive oil - and gamberoni (£5.15) - king prawns baked in a garlic, tomato, chilli and basil sauce with toasted focaccia bread.

There's also a number of sharing platters available including selezione grande - buffalo wings, barbecue ribs and chicken wings with garlic bread and dips (£8.95). I'm not sure whether it could technically be counted as authentically Italian - maybe it's from Rome's Texan district or something.

On our waiters' recommendation we shared a garlic ciabatta (£2.95) to start. It was absolutely delicious - piping hot, squidgy and very garlicky. And the portion was incredibly generous compared to some other restaurants I've been to.

The main courses provided another dilemma, with salads, steaks and paninis to choose from as well as pizza and pasta.

The Torto Caprino (£7.65) - a goat's cheese and spinach tart - was music to vegetarian's ears and the salmone e pesto (£8.50) - salmon fillet on a bed of mixed leaves with yellow and red peppers, sounded lovely too.

Pizza toppings included Parma regina (£7.95) - prosciutto, rustic tomatoes, rocket and black olive and, of course, traditional margheritas.

But our eyes were drawn to the pasta - and it was the same dish that caught our attention, despite there being more than a dozen on the menu.

We both went for the cannelloni spinchi e ricotta (£7.45), but the chilli prawn linguine (£8.45) and the rigatoni pomadoro (£5.60) also sounded good. And we opted to have a mixed salad of leaves, peppers, onions, cherry tomatoes and olives between us.

The cannelloni was delicious - rich and cheesy - and the crunchy salad was the perfect accompaniment.

After an Italian feast like that would we find room for pudding? Well when there's tiramisu (£3.95) on the menu I find it impossible to resist. It's probably my favourite pudding - and this was a very good example. Sometimes the coffee and marsala wine can be a little overpowering, but Bella Italia has got it just right.

My friend went for the cheesecake with a red berry compote (£3.95), which looked delicious and was reported to taste it too. Other choices included the cheekily-named Godfather - nutty chocolate fudge brownies, vanilla and toffee ice cream with chocolate crunch, chocolate sauce and cream (£4.50) and the Godfather Part II - vanilla and toffee ice cream, fudge chunks and banana.

We rounded off the meal with filter coffees. Bellissimo.

And I noticed that they do student offers - wish I still had my NUS card.

t Bella Italia, Red Lion Street, Norwich; 01603 614676

t Do I need to book? This branch is popular for pre-theatre suppers so if it's a special occasion it's best to phone. There's also a branch at Exchange Street, opposite Jarrolds.

t Anything for vegetarians? Yes - there's a couple of meat-free starter and main course choices - such as brushetta, giardiniera pizza with oven-roasted vegetables, and penne fresco with goat's cheese, cherry tomatoes, spinach and pine nuts.

t Is it child friendly? Yes, younger guests have a menu all of their own, including cheesy chicken penne and pizza.

t Where do I park? The Forum, Chapelfield and St Giles car parks are all within ten minutes walk.

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