Norwich: Pinocchio’s

There's not many places that are equally good for a romantic dinner, a girlie lunch or a night out with friends. Pinocchio's is that rare thing, and possibly for this reason it has become a Norwich institution.

There's not many places that are equally good for a romantic dinner, a girlie lunch or a night out with friends. Pinocchio's is that rare thing, and possibly for this reason it has become a Norwich institution. This splendid place would sort you out for a fairly posh three-course meal in informal surroundings, or you can just pop in for a quick pizza. The menu covers everything from wild boar and lamb chops to pizza, pasta and home-made focaccia plus sweet things from tiramisu to rhubarb cheesecake.

Something of a veteran of the Norwich restaurant scene, Pinocchio's was on the verge of closure when Jayne and Nigel Raffles took it over in the early 1990s. Since then it has been on the up and up, with the exception of a year out of action following a fire in August, 2004. These days it is part of their restaurant mini-empire which covers other well-known city venues like St Benedict's restaurant next door, Pulse vegetarian café and the Library.

The other half's salad of squid and chorizo was unusual and impressive. The combination of fishiness and pigginess, seasoned with chilli, worked a treat, even if the crispy onion rings perched on top did elicit a complaint of: “I thought it was supposed to be red onion?”

My bruschetta of goats' cheese and red pepper was not bruschetta in the conventional sense, more a starter which happened to have a piece of ciabatta underneath. Not that it was particularly the worse for that. One of those elegant long romero peppers, roasted and split down the middle, was topped with a slice of goats' cheese log and drizzled with pesto. Not rocket science, but rather good.

Sometimes the peril of a good set of starters is disappointment with the main courses, but here the high standard continued.

I went for a pizza that sounded irresistible: butternut squash, spinach, blue cheese and pine nuts. I've had better bases (it was just slightly doughy, without the paper-thin patches that make real Italian pizzas great), but the topping was a triumph, the beautifully sweet butternut squash set off perfectly by the sharpness of the blue cheese.

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The other half's sea bream was a nice piece of fish, though it could have been a little larger. It was perched - or should that be swimming? - on a saffron risotto which was unusual in restaurant terms for actually tasting of saffron.

My pizza was big enough not to leave any room for dessert, though I felt compelled to try a few spoonfuls of the other half's chocolate cheesecake, in the name of research, you understand. It was a baked cheesecake, almost like a flourless sponge cake, and not bad at all.

All of this was washed down with a perfectly acceptable house red from an all-Italian wine list which includes wines by the glass.

I couldn't help but notice that the pasta looked tasty too, from classics like carbonara to rigatoni with roasted vegetables and melted cheese or cannelloni with butternut squash, spinach and ricotta, which I will certainly be returning for next time.

Being hyper-critical on matters of food as I am, I feel compelled to point out that the pine nuts on my pizza were missing, that the saffron risotto was a bit on the dry side, and just to be really pedantic, the waiters could be better trained in Italian pronunciation (yes, I know most people think you say brushetta, but it's still brusketta). But it says something about Pinocchio's that these things didn't really matter at all (well, just a tiny bit in the case of the risotto).

Just down the road is Pizza Express, a place where, for its many virtues - mostly related to having got consistency down to an exact science - most of the pizzas are more expensive, they are smaller, and the choice of toppings is wider but no more interesting. And it's a chain, whereas Pinocchio's is an experience you can have only in Norwich, supporting local businesses at the same time.

So I hope the hordes of people in Pizza Express that Friday night were there because they couldn't get into Pinocchio's.

As for me, I'll be sure to book - I'm coming back for that cannelloni.

t Where is it? Pinocchio's, 11 St Benedict's Street, Norwich.; 01603 613318

t Do I need to book? Ideally and definitely at weekends.

t What about parking? Well, this is St Benedict's. St Andrew's car park oon Duke Street is probably your best bet, although there is also a smaller car park at the other end of St Benedict's.

t Is there disabled access? Wheelchair users could probably get into the ground floor restaurant (though there's not acres of space between tables) but the toilets are up the stairs.