Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Pizzeria Villaggio


73 Merthyr Road
    CF14 1DD
    02920 613110

This will be my first review of an Italian restaurant on my blog, but before I get to it I feel I must vent my spleen in despondent, frustrated anguish.
Something about the Italian restaurant scene in Cardiff has troubled me for quite some time now. It's rarely the cooking that causes my despondency, but my exasperation comes with the identikit menu and complete lack of innovation.
The average British foodie has been lucky enough in the last decade to experience a renaissance in dining, and although Cardiff is always behind the curve, surely it's possible that change could come through the Italian restaurant scene first.

When I was growing up the only restaurant I can remember standing out was the Greek place on Crwys rd, and it stood out to me precisely because it wasn't Italian. For some strange reason Italian eateries, along with Chinese and Indian have always thrived in Cardiff, with every area enjoying their fare share. Even against the might of the ubiquitous pizza and pasta chain abominations, like Bella Italia, Pizza Hut and ASK the humble family owned places have trooped along. This surprises me as they all serve pretty much the same thing. The only difference being that the small independents can't offer the same sort of deals as the chains, so surely they should be a dying breed in the face of such competition, but that's just never been the case.

I'm yet to walk into an Italian restaurant in Cardiff without being able to guess at most of the menu without even reading it. Carbonara will be there of course, and will usually be presented doused in cream. Bolognaise will be there, and it has to come with spaghetti. Amatriciana, lasagne, Arrabbiata, and for vegetarians the spinach or mushroom ravioli will all, i'm sure, also feature.
I know people enjoy the run of the mill Italian dishes very much, and it's those dishes that have allowed so many places to thrive, but why the hell can't someone offer something a little bit different? I know that this is often where the specials board comes into play, but it really shouldn't have to, as once again the usual predictability will come into play. A fish dish will feature usually a sea bass or cod (the "frutti de mar" will most likely be on the main menu, consisting of squid rings, shrimp and crab sticks.) The steak will be there, a choice of rump or sirloin, and they'll also dip a toe meekly into the world of offal with some sort of liver dish.
I may be coming across as a carmudgeonly arsehole here, and that's because I am carmudgeonly, but also because I believe that people should be given the chance to experience a far wider range of foods. Cardiff is now awash with global cuisine, and restaurants offering something dare I say it exotic are thriving, where as Italians are still pushing the same tired, old, comfort food, and there's something very seventies about their attitude to what cardiffians want.
To say that Italians have a rich heritage when it comes to food would be to understate tremendously, and sadly us welsh are missing out on a huge part of that heritage. We all cook pasta dishes at home, and some of us might even have quite a repertoire, but I’m yet to meet anyone who says their gonna knock up an osso bucco for the family on a Monday night, or rustle up spitini a la siciliana when they get home after work, and it's that sort of thing that restaurants should be offering us. I'm not asking for high end, fine dining, or molecular gastronomy here, but I am asking for the option of trying something a bit different when I go out to eat.

I haven't always harboured these feelings. There was a time when a visit to an Italian for a Carbonara was something I looked forward to, even craved, and I can pin-point the exact moment when my attitudes changed.
I'd seen on-line that Jamie Oliver was opening a new branch of his Italian chain, and I knew right there and then, that soon enough the only thing Cardiff foodies would be talking about was Jamie’s fucking Italian. I was soon to be proved right and in my usual miserable way, I got more and more pissed off. Why the fuck were people queuing up for an Italian with a celebrity name above the door, when a short walk away were Italians that had been dishing out good food for years? I knew I would have to try Jamie’s place, I didn't want to, but I needed to walk the walk if I was gonna talk the talk. After eating Jamies food I felt, and still do feel, that I was correct to be slagging him off. I won’t go into details as I feel the place deserves a second visit before I review it, suffice to say I was un-impressed.
So I kept on slagging him off and bemoaning the fact that established eateries were suffering because of him, until someone far wiser than me pointed out that this was a good thing. For the Cardiff dining scene to evolve it takes competition, as competition should hopefully breed innovation. It was somewhat of an Italian epiphany. Eateries in Cardiff had coasted along, picking up their shares of the customers and doing nothing out of the ordinary because there had never been a real, serious, challenge to the food they were serving.

Now I needed to get all that off my chest because I love Italian food. I love to cook it, I love to read about it, and I love to be served it. Now since this blog reviews Cardiff restaurants, and I’m yet to find anywhere out of the ordinary when it comes to Italians, then it's the ordinary I must review.

Pizzeria villaggio is just around the corner from my house and it's been there for almost as long as I’ve been alive. The family that run it are always welcoming, hospitable and genuinely pleased to see you It warms my cold, cynical, foodie heart to see the grandmama behind the stove of the open kitchen as I’m led to my seat. This open kitchen walk pass is one of my most hotly anticipated moments when dining out, and no-where else in Cardiff does it like villaggio does. The steam that hits you with the smells of garlic and chilli are truly pavlovian, but sadly lead to an anti climax when you see the decor of the dining room. It's bland and lacks any individuality. The place could definitely do with a more homely touch.
The menu is of course run of the mill, but it's what they do with their ingredients that keep me going back. They cook their pasta better than I ever could, and with main dishes at around the £8 mark, and good cheap wine, the total bill is never crippling.

Whatever you order when you visit, please heed my advice and order their garlic bread. The usual soggy baguette is done away with, and replaced with something more akin to a pizza base. It's heavenly. It's also sadly the best starter available. On my last visit I started with the mushrooms which were far too acidic and bitter and not at all pleasant. But I’ve also had the cockles (gritty), the Parma ham and melon (exactly what it says it is) and prawn cocktail (the one you're mum makes on Xmas day will be better and she won't charge you a fiver for it). So save yourself a few quid and head straight for the mains.

The misses and I spent the one evening trying to work out what the spaghetti they serve here is. It's fatter than anything you'll find in the shops and could well be Bigoli, or possibly it's a setting on the die they use to make it in house. It's to my shame that I’ve never found out, but whatever it is, it's fantastic. The sauces cling to it, like my awful attempts at pasta dough cling to every work surface. The mare e monte you can see pictured was advertised as coming with fettucine, but this fat spaghetti was a fine substitute. The dish was seasoned perfectly and the sauce coats the tongue as pleasingly as it coats the pasta. A stunning bit of hearty grub.
The misses usually goes for the penne al ragu and asks for extra chilli. She was recommended this by a friend and has never looked back, so I’ll recommend it here to you too. However, on our last visit she opted for the meatballs, which were underwhelming. Too small for my liking as had they been bigger they would be less prone to drying out as these had.
For the purposes of this blog I thought I’d stray from the pastas that villaggio does so well, and sample one of the specials which they don't. I chose a skate wing with vegetables and it was miserable. The fish itself went from far too crisp to far to soggy in the space of three inches. The frozen veg had never had the pleasure of meeting salt, and I’m not sure how they managed to make a bowl of roast potatoes taste like play-doh but they did.
As for the pizzas served here I can only pass on to you what I’ve been told as sadly too much cheese makes me ill. I'm reliably told by someone who eats little else than pizza that the ones served at villaggio are among the very best, so please give one a go.

In summary, pizzeria village does exactly what it sets out to do. No frills cookery at a price that should get you out of the house on evenings when you can't be arsed to cook yourself. If you stick to the main menu and the dishes they've been cooking week in, week out for years then you shouldn't be disappointed. In fact I’d say you'll eat better-cooked pasta here than you will in most Cardiff Italians. If you live outside Whitchurch then you probably have your own local favourite doing exactly the same dishes so there's really no need to make a trip to villaggio. However, if you do live in Whitchurch then please, please make more use of this local institution and avoid Mediterraneo in the village. The newcomer isn't a patch on the old timer.

This whole blog post might seem a bit confused, but that's just how my brain is. I needed to write the whole rant as I’ve now come to the conclusion that the local Italian has its place in the community. We may not have places that will achieve Michelin stars but the fact that we can eat the sort of food, and drink the sort of wine that send you stumbling home in a pleasingly soporific stupor  is something to be cherished. Best of all, it really doesn't cost the earth.
I still don't really know for sure where I stand when it comes to big name chains, and probably never will. Maybe one day Massimo Bottura will open an outpost of Osteria Francescana on mill lane, but until then please make use of the tired old local Italians as well as their celebrity named competition.