THERE comes a point in every winter when all I can think of is blue skies and sunshine and switching from drinking wine in front of a fire to by a pool (or even better, in it).
By February, a few weeks after the vitamin D levels have dropped to below negligible, that point has most definitely arrived.
Dinner at an Italian in Durham isn’t quite the same as eating a freshly made pizza in the rolling Tuscan hills, while enjoying the pleasures of a bottle of Chianti.
But even still, a trip to Bistro Italiano is enough to cheer up even the bleakest of days.
The Claypath restaurant was buzzing when we arrived for our Saturday night date.
It’s a cosy little spot (so cosy our neighbour’s bottle of wine almost went flying as another party was leaving) but pleasant in a simple, homely sort of way. Think rustic white walls and flickering candlelight.
The menu is extensive with just about every pizza or pasta dish you can think of. Having decided to skip lunch we were both ravenous so the bowl of dough balls that arrived at the table while we were still deliberating was very welcome.
To start I decided on a focaccia with goats cheese, roasted red pepper and caramelised red onion, with a red wine and balsamic dressing (£6.95). Bread, cheese with a bit of sweetness and a bit of zing – what’s not to love?
Meanwhile Carlo, my dining companion for the evening had mozzarella balls with a Napoli sauce (£6.95). By the time I got a bite the mozzarella had cooled a little and lost some of its gooey loveliness, while the sauce had made the crispy exterior a little soggy. But I’m told when they first arrived they were delicious.
With our hunger somewhat abated, we were able to sit back and enjoy the atmosphere. It was pretty busy, but very pleasant. As with so many of its type, everything was served up with a hefty dose of Italian charm.
For my main course I was tempted by the specials board and went for sea bass and scallops. Though a little pricey at £21.95, it was more than worth it. I love sea bass’ meaty flesh and delicate flavour. It was cooked beautifully, falling apart (without losing all its texture) and served in a tomato-based sauce which was finely balanced between sweet and savoury.
When cooked well, nothing can beat a scallop in my opinion. These were as sweet and silky as I could ask for and made the dish really special.
One of my biggest gripes with modern restaurants is presentation – or to be more precise, style over substance.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a plate of food that looks like a piece of modern art. But only if it tastes as good as it looks.
But thankfully the chef at Bistro Italiano has no such pretensions. Not that it didn’t look appetising, but it was simply presented, suggesting confidence in the quality of the food.
My main probably wouldn’t win MasterChef on its looks – but would I go back for seconds? Most definitely. (And possibly thirds – but that’s only because I’m greedy).
My companion’s choice was chargrilled chicken with king prawns (£13.95) - a simple but flavoursome dish. The chicken was tender and juicy while the prawns large and succulent.
At this point in the evening the service became slightly confused – I think three waiters offered us dessert within about three minutes of each other. But when we did have a few moments to look at the choices on offer I hit on the tartufa nero (£4.50), while Carlo decided on one of the great classics – panna cotta (£5.50).
Composed of two types of ice cream, dusted in cocoa, the tartufo was delicious and gave me the chocolate fix I was looking for.
The panna cotta was creamy and rich and had a magnificent wobble and slipped down almost before I managed to steal a bite.
The final bill was £77.75, which included a bottle of wine.
70 Claypath, Durham, DH1 1QT
Tel: 0191 383 0374
Opening times: Tuesday to Sunday: noon to 10.30pm; Mondays: 5pm to 10.30pm
Ratings (out of ten): Food 9 Service 8 Surroundings 8 Value 7