DAVID WAKEFIELD Zizzi in Norwich has a kind of simplicity which appeals to the “gastropub” devotee - lots of wood, nicely-lit, an open-plan kitchen and bustling atmosphere.
Not that there's ever a shortage of places at which to dine out in Norwich, but I find myself drawn, irresistably, to the array of eateries lining Tombland, in the heart of the city. It's as much about the surroundings as anything else, and I can think of many more prestigious outlets which would kill for this kind of ambience.
Particularly on a Saturday night there is a kind of buzz to the area. While most the nightclubs are further along, on Prince of Wales Road, and at Riverside, Tombland tends to be the kind of place where you meet friends for a pre-clubbing drink, or just for a chat. In that happy period where autumn clings on, despite winter's efforts to drag it down, it is a pleasure merely to stroll down there amid the trendy bars and restaurants. Before eating, naturally.
Tombland contains a mix of upmarket venues, like Tatlers, and a collection of the popular “formularised” restaurants, like La Tasca and Caffe Uno, plus my choice, Zizzi (not to be confused, as I have heard it so done, with the restaurants run by Italian chef Aldo Zilli!).
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The food aficianado may scoff at the likes of Zizzi; but to my mind it's a winning formula of food, reasonably priced, nicely served by pleasant staff, in smart surroundings. They are the places to go if looking for a kind of middle range outing - not for a grand celebration, nor for an afterthought just before pay day!
Zizzi in Norwich has a kind of simplicity which appeals to the “gastropub” devotee - lots of wood, nicely-lit, an open-plan kitchen and bustling atmosphere. We had taken the precaution of booking, and were glad that we had done so, as there seemed to be precious few tables spare. The bonus is that the non-smoking section seems to be upstairs, which is not quite so crowded.
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Our visits to Italian restaurants are utterly predictable in that we always ask for bread and olives in order to peruse the menu, and these (£1.95 for olives and £2.20 for a generous portion of ciabatta) duly arrived, as did our equally predictable wine choice of a rather pleasant Villa Mura Pinot Grigio (£13.95) which came promptly, and well chilled. Our request for glasses of tap water was also met without demur.
For starters, my wife chose one of the “specials”, the Cozze Ripene, the green-lipped mussels (£4.35) while I decided, after some deliberation, on the Crostini Formaggia Di Capra (£4.10 - grilled goat's cheese with caramelised balsamic onions on ciabatta, with honey dressing and mixed salad). Both proved to be excellent, and my sweet dressing really complemented the balsamic flavourings and the cheese.
Neither of us has ever, for some reason, tried Calzone in a restaurant - although we have a friend who regularly plumps for the biggest and hottest version available!
Calzone is a variation on the good old pizza, but the dough is allowed to rise, giving it the appearance of a pitta bread that someone has inflated with a bicycle pump.
Thus it was, with a true pioneering spirit, that my wife chose the Calzone Clarissa (£8.20) which contained roasted goat's cheese, roasted peppers, rocket, parmesan, tomatoes and mozzarella. Thankfully, it was not as large as some we have come across, and she tackled it manfully, and obviously enjoyed it. Not much remained at the denouement! Incidentally, for those who prefer pizza, there is a considerable choice, including some surprisingly original mixes that I have not seen in any of the “dedicated” pizza restaurants.
From another big list of pasta choices, I went for the Penne Parmigiano (penne pasta with chicken, pancetta and broccoli in a creamy parmesan sauce, at £7.95). This was tasty, also, the pasta being cooked just as I like it, and the flavours not overdone. You could really taste the parmesan.
The downside of starting with bread is that it rarely allows us room for a pudding. As is usual with Italian restaurants, the choice is not that big - the ubiquitous tiramasu (£3.95) and chocolate torte (£3.60) taking pride of place. But Zizzi does offer two specials, for which there is a 15-minute wait - an apple and Amaretto crumble, and a banana concoction that, for calorific content purposes, would not be out of place at the famous Carnegie Deli, in New York, where I once had a slice of Apple Schnitzel about the size of Poringland. Both cost £4.25. With wine and coffee, our bill came to a very reasonable £44.20.
To conclude, a word about the staff. Diners have a right to expect courtesy and patience at the table, and both were in ample supply here, our waitress being polite and chatty. Such qualities are sometimes not in evidence at some establishments when you leave, however - but they were here. The waitress said goodnight, the waiter we met on the stairs said goodnight, the chef said goodnight, and the man at the door said goodnight. Such things really make or mar an evening, and this was a good night!
t Zizzi, 25 Tombland, Norwich; 01603 765767; www.zizzi.co.uk
t OK for families? Possibly not in the evening, but OK at lunchtime. There is no children's menu, but smaller portions are available.
t Should I book? During the week it's probably not necessary, but advisable at the weekend.
t Parking: Both the Monastery and St Andrew's car parks are within 10 minutes' stroll. On-street parking is available nearby, but chances of a space are fairly remote.