Norwich: Umberto's Trattoria Italia
EMMA LEE From the menu to the décor to the emotional Italian power-pop on the stereo to the wine served by the carafe, Umberto's has a charmingly authentic retro feel to it.
I felt a bit like the Pied Piper. When my boyfriend and I arrived at Umberto's Trattoria Italia, on a night when the rain was lashing down and no-one in their right mind would venture out of the house, we were the only diners. But soon after we'd sat down, several other tablefuls joined us, including a couple who were obviously Umberto's regulars and a party of northerners visiting the city on business to do some blue sky thinking and pushing the envelope.
We weren't deliberately eavesdropping on their conversations, you understand - Umberto's is the kind of intimate place where you can't help but overhear your neighbours.
Umberto's, tucked away in St Benedict's Street, Norwich, is one of those restaurants where I'd had some very enjoyable meals in the past - it's a good place for group outings, because even the pickiest eater can usually find something they like on an Italian menu - but for one reason or another, fallen off my radar when it came to places to eat out.
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However, after my latest visit, I must say that I'm very glad to have rediscovered it.
From the menu to the décor to the emotional Italian power-pop on the stereo to the wine served by the carafe, Umberto's has a charmingly authentic retro feel to it.
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I could be wrong, but I would hazard a guess that the furnishings date from the 1980s, but it's a welcome contrast to the identikit and slightly soulless wood-and-chrome that you get in most restaurants nowadays. And there can't be many restaurants that have their own personalised napkins printed up wishing you buon appetito, which is another cute touch.
A malfunctioning umbrella combined with a howling wind meant that we were slightly bedraggled when we arrived at the restaurant. But we got a warm welcome from the proprietor. We were quickly shown to our table and sat down to make our choices.
The menu is extensive, with plenty of pasta, pizza, meat and fish dishes to choose from, and there's also a specials board which changes regularly.
We ordered a couple of Italian beers to help the decision-making process along. Knowing from previous visits how big the starters are at Umberto's we skipped straight to the main course, although having sampled the bruschetta on previous visits, I thoroughly recommend it.
The cold weather had triggered my carb-cravings - and we had come to the right place for comfort food. I was tempted by some of the pasta offerings, but decided on a pizza topped with Italian ham, cheese and rocket, plus a mixed side salad as a token effort at being remotely health-conscious.
My boyfriend went for a delicious-sounding concoction of chicken with a cheese filling, wrapped in Italian ham, plus a side order of vegetables.
And then we added some garlic bread for good measure.
There's a warning on the menu that as all the food is cooked from scratch there can sometimes be a slightly longer than average waiting time for the food to arrive, but, despite the other tables filling up, our dishes arrived promptly.
In fact, you couldn't fault the service throughout the meal - our waitress, on her first shift at the restaurant, was cheery and chatty.
Umberto's garlic bread is delicious - flavoursome without the garlic being overpowering.
The food that was supposed to be hot was piping hot, and all the portions were ample.
My boyfriend reported that his chicken was cooked to perfection. It was succulent and bursting with flavour - the robust cheese sauce and salty ham complemented the meat beautifully.
My pizza was one of the best that I've ever eaten - and, believe me, I've eaten a lot of pizza in my time! The base was thin, but light and slightly spongy rather than crispy - just the way I like it. It was generously topped with delicately thin slices of ham and stretchy mozzarella - and the rocket had obviously been added at the last minute so it was still crunchy, its peppery flavour adding a lively touch of zing.
The leaves in my salad were so green and fresh I wouldn't have been surprised if they'd still been growing that morning, and they were accompanied by olives, tomato and pepper.
Sadly, despite having missed out on starters, it turned out that my eyes were bigger than my stomach and the pizza defeated me.
Tiramisu is one of my all-time favourite desserts, but even with a bit of belt loosening, there was no way I could have managed it.
Instead we opted to finish the meal with coffees - a filter coffee for me and a cappuccino for him - which came with a chunky amoretti biscuit perched on the side.
The bill for the two of us, including beers and coffees, came to just under £40, which was a small price to pay to bring a much-needed bit of Mediterranean warmth to a chilly wet Norwich evening.
t Umberto's Trattoria Italia, 68-70 St Benedict's Street, Norwich; 01603 615581
t Where is it? It's towards the Grapes Hill end of St Benedict's Street, rather than the city end a few doors down from the Ten Bells pub.
t Do I need to book? On a week night you should be OK - although if it's a special occasion, don't chance it. It can get very busy at the weekends.
t Where can I park? There's very limited on-street parking on St Benedict's Street, so you're better off opting for the Westwick Street or St Andrews car parks.
t Anything for veggies? Veggies generally can't go wrong at Italian restaurants, and there were meat-free pasta dishes and pizzas on the menu.