Isn’t it wonderful when a restaurant meal utterly surpasses your expectations? That’s exactly what happened when Pete and I visited the Angel branch of Jamie’s Italian for a weekday evening meal.
I’ll put my hands up and confess – one reason it was able to do so was because I had relegated Jamie’s Italian to the ranks of a mainstream, mass-appeal chain; Bella Pasta with a celebrity face-mask if you will – so I was expecting dishes that were ‘decent’, ‘satisfactory’, ‘competent’, ‘good value’ rather than ‘superb’, ‘delightful’ and ‘damn tasty’. And Jamie’s Italian serves delicious food that is way better than chain-standardised menus, spaces and services often produce.
We decided to eat the Italian way: a light antipasto, then two pastas for our primo, followed by a shared secondo meat course served with contorno vegetable side dishes. We skipped fruit and cheese and finished with sweet dolce desserts and caffè in the form of coffee cocktails!
Jamie’s Bruschetta (£5.50) was a lovely start. That creamy buffalo ricotta flecked with herbs was rich and fresh, perfect over crunchy toast. The garlicky tomatoes were cooked and perfectly tasty – and I do like roasted tomatoes, don’t get me wrong – but both of us agreed we’d prefer the fresher flavour of raw tomatoes here. The scattering of lemon zest added an appealing citrus note, lifting all the other flavours.
I’m giggling as I write because the Three-Cheese Caramelle (£6.95 / 11.95), we ordered the small) was so very good it made us grin as we ate! Described as ‘beautiful filled pasta with ricotta, provolone, Bella Lodi & spinach, served with creamy tomato, garlic, basil & rosé wine sauce’ it had a lightness of texture and brightness of taste that was very unexpected for such a rustic dish. I could eat this every day and be happy.
But hang on, Jamie’s Sausage Pappardelle (£7.45 / 12.25), we ordered the small) was also fantastic. In this ’ragù of slow-cooked fennel & free-range pork sausages with incredible Chianti, Parmesan & herby breadcrumbs’ everything was spot on from the chewy folds of pasta to the soft, meaty sausage, redolent with fennel seeds, to the light crunch of the crumb topping – this dish was full-on comfort. Perhaps I’d have the caramelle every day through summer and the pappardelle every day through winter?
We were very relieved we’d opted to share our main when this enormous Turkey Milanese (£13.50) arrived. Of course, the turkey had been properly flattened before proscuitto and provolone were added and the whole lot was bread-crumbed and fried. Served topped with a fried egg and generous shavings of black summer truffle, it was wonderful – the truffle heady, earthy and decadent. I liked the lemon zest scattered over but Pete noted that, although he liked it too, it was a little overused across the menu, such that it made dishes that are actually very different taste a little samey.
Our first side of Garlicky Green Beans (£3.50) would have been plenty on its own, and was a perfect side for the turkey. The spicy Sicilian tomato sauce, shavings of pecorini and slivers of fried garlic made a delicious dressing for beans that were perfectly cooked to retain a little crunch – I dislike beans served either over or undercooked.
The Royal Caprese Salad (£3.95) was also delicious, but oddly presented and not very well balanced. Half of the heritage tomatoes were roughly chopped but two enormous slices were left as unwieldy slabs on the plate. Against all that tomato was plenty of basil, some sharp salty capers and lots of olive oil but disappointingly little mozzarella; just one tiny ball broken into two pieces.
Molten Chocolate Praline Pudding (£6.50) is listed on the menu as served with salted caramel ice cream, an accompaniment which swung my choice from the Epic Brownie in its direction, so I was disappointed to be told that the kitchen had run out of salted caramel ice cream only when the dish being served to the table with chocolate ice cream instead. I prefer being advised of changes as soon as the order has been handed to the kitchen, so I can switch to something else if the change is significant to me. Still, the pudding was very good – perfectly liquid within and soft and squidgy without; the dark chocolate and hazelnut combination a gratifyingly poshed-up take on Nutella.
Tiramisù (£5.95), described as ‘the classic Italian dessert topped with chocolate shavings & orange zest‘ wasn’t as classic as all that – the Cointreau-like orange flavour was all the way through rather than just in the scattering of zest over the top. That said, the texture was spot on, with lusciously liquid-laden sponge layered between light-as-air cream. The stick of cardboard stuck to the side, which we mistook for a chocolate decoration until bitten into, was a minor let-down.
On arrival, I chose a Passion Fruit & Mango Smash (£7.95) – rum with passion fruit, mango juice, fresh lime, vanilla syrup and ginger beer; super sweet and way too easy to drink! Pete took advantage of the wide range of wines available by 500 ml carafe, enjoying his Montepulciano D’abruzzo Il Faggio (£16.05) throughout the meal.
After dessert we switched our usual coffees for some very tempting coffee cocktails, a Tiramisù Martini (£7.15) for me and an Espresso Martini (£7.50) for Pete. His was served with rather more froth than cocktail but the vodka, Kahlua and espresso combination was a hit. I judged my combination of Bacardi Gold, amaretto, Frangelico, Kahlua, espresso and double cream even better!
Service was friendly and professional and, for the most part, pretty responsive; there were occasional moments where flagging a member of staff took a little longer than ideal – the place was busy and each waiter has a slew of tables to look after. But what I noticed much more is what came across as a genuine desire for customers to have a great experience, a willingness to give guidance on the menu and to steer customers according to their professed tastes. The usual checks that all is well after each course was served seemed less perfunctory than usual too.
The space is cavernous, which makes it a little noisier than ideal, but I know Pete and I are in the minority when it comes to our preferred balance between peaceful and buzzing. Seating isn’t hugely comfortable, though it’s far from the worse I’ve encountered. Hard seats are never as welcoming for a leisurely meal as padded ones!
On summer evenings, floor to ceiling windows let in lots of golden light, making it easy to imagine oneself in a bustling Italian trattoria.
The menu is prosaic – a solidly predictable offering of classic Italian cuisine – but the dishes themselves are anything but dull; deftly cooked with good quality ingredients that are a joy to the eye and an even bigger delight to eat. The food is pretty damn good here, and great value. I’m also comforted by the confidence that quality should be consistent across multiple visits – one of the unsung advantages of a well-managed chain, when they get the formula just right.