Norwich: Caffè Italia

This is a daytime-only place that knows what people need to get them through to evening - nothing too fancy, nor too rich, but good-quality food that doesn't take too long. And as you would expect in an Italian café, the coffee is top-notch.

I read recently that the average office worker spends three and a half minutes eating lunch. Now, it is well known that 90 per cent of statistics are made up, but this seemed startlingly short even to me - and I have been known to polish off a meal while my companions are still picking up a knife and fork.

Presumably some people still spend a shocking, say, half an hour on lunch, which means that there must be people eating lunch in about half a second, or even a negative amount of time (perhaps you achieve this by eating it simultaneously with breakfast, or perhaps in your sleep).

It's a great shame that the long lunch has died a death, although a number of Norwich's finest restaurants offer some quite good lunch deals, just in case you can be tempted. Caffé Italia, while not having any aspirations to be among the city's finest, offers a happy medium that leaves office slaves with no excuse. You can eat well and still be in and out in half an hour, or perhaps a shade longer if you wait for your lasagne to cool down to a temperature that will spare the roof of your mouth.

This is a daytime-only place that knows what people need to get them through to evening - nothing too fancy, nor too rich, but good-quality food that doesn't take too long. It's not flash - the tables are bare wood, though there are some nice pictures on the walls - but it is bigger than it looks from outside, and feeds everyone from pen-pushers to elderly ladies taking a break from shopping.


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There are starters like mozzarella and tomato salad, garlic bread and antipasti. But this being lunch, most go straight to the main event, be it a toasted panini, or pizza or pasta. Best are the baked pasta dishes, which include a lovely fresh spinach and ricotta cannelloni and generously filled lasagne, and order some bread on the side to mop up the sauce.

Away from the baked dishes, the chef's special pasta is an interesting mixture of bacon, mushrooms, olives and chilli in a Neapolitan sauce, while the seafood pasta is not quite as exciting but still does the job. Brilliantly, the pasta comes in a choice of sizes, described as large and small, but which could more accurately described as “gluttonous” and “reasonable lunchtime sort of size, allowing you to order dessert too without shame”. As it happens, Caffé Italia's small cannelloni is the same size as those that most restaurants produce by way of main course, so the big one must be exceptional. And if you really just want a speedy bite to eat, the panini are not exactly rocket science, but good value and tasty.

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Almost all the dishes come with the offer of freshly ground black pepper and parmesan (the pre-grated type that looks like damp crumbs - but they still get marks for effort). The specials change from time to time, and on the last visit featured a chicken and mushroom risotto flavoured with pesto, made short work of by a pair of genteel ladies on the next table.

Perhaps the weak point of the menu is the pizza. I couldn't decide whether they had bought in a ready-made base and added toppings, or bought in ready-made cheese and tomato pizza and added things to that. Either way, the base was stiff and flat as cardboard, not a rippling, bubbled version with the tantalising paper-thin patches that come from making your own. The small version for £5 or so is fine for lunch, but by the time you pay a rather steep £8 for a large one you would be better off in even Pizza Express.

As you would expect in an Italian café, the coffee is top-notch, and they also do green and mint tea for caffeine-haters. There is wine for those who love a liquid lunch, and a couple of really odd liqueurs on display, including a bottle of carciofi, or artichoke, which sounds like a health food supplement and must rank second only to meths in how desperate you would need to be to get drunk on it.

Having recently been for lunch in one of the trendier city establishments, and waited 15 minutes just to order drinks, the friendly efficiency of Caffé Italia seems a real blessing. As long as you don't eat too slowly, you can probably have three courses in here without overstretching your lunch hour.

It is no criticism of the lemon and sultana cheesecake, which lingers lusciously behind the counter, that I have not yet managed to do so. It's just that such indulgences don't seem quite right when they herald an imminent return to work, although it may be that the coffee and alcohol in the tiramisu would improve my afternoon's output no end.

With the possible exception of the pizza, Caffe Italia is hard to fault. No, it isn't haute cuisine, but then it's not trying to be. What it does is good quality, home-cooked food at a fair price.

It's a little oasis in the working day that we could all do with more of.

t Caffé Italia, 5 Orford Street, Norwich; 01603 625390.

t Where is it? Orford Street is near The Bell pub, on the edge of Castle Meadow.

t Disabled access? Not specifically adapted, and it's quite small, but wheelchair users might just be able to manage.

t Booking? No need.

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