The waitress carefully places two tins of peeled pomodoro tomatoes on my table. Why? I look questioningly at her.
Is this Jamie Oliver’s new ploy to get us cooking from scratch, a cooker wheeled over alongside other Italian ingredients?
‘It’s for your first course, as the antipasti plank looks better with a little height,’ is the explanation. This practical solution is the least aesthetic part of my time at the newly-opened Jamie’s Italian restaurant at Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth.
It’s a magnificent beast of the place with funky written all over it. Seating nearly 500 in and out, it is the largest in the restaurant chain. Parts of the décor give the illusion of la bella Italia – those fabulous green and white tiles surrounding the on-view long kitchens with their swinging San Daniele hams, glorious breads from The Flour Station (Jamie’s London bakery) plus the pasta-making machine by the main entrance with its coils and pasta shapes sitting prettily in vast baskets.
But the three sections of the restaurant resemble a US-Canadian West Coast eaterie, with banquette or high bar seating and metal film-set lighting establishing the ‘brash with heart’ tone.
A metal chain see-through wall separates one area, the noise levels – chefs barking out orders, high velocity muzak – not for those wishing a quiet chat. But it’s pure theatre.
And the menu? ‘What you’d find ordinary people eating over in Italy,’ says Jamie, whose business partner in this venture is Italian chef Gennaro Contaldo.
Alongside differing types of meat and vegetable planks, come for crispy mushrooms with garlicky mayo; crispy courgette flowers with four cheeses; smoky arancini rice balls. Try pasta types you never see on menus, such as bucatini (tubular); panzerotti (half moons); paccheri (tubes); monachelle (seashells).
They are all served with a variety of sauces and fish including cockles and cuttlefish, while there’s a Spag Bol too.
Try steak; spiedini (all the lamb parts); Tuscan wild boar sausages; Ligurian fish stew and fritto misto. Prices are a friendly £3.75 to £6.85 for starters and £11 - £17 for mains, but you may need to add some sides to those mains.
Good training is vital to get the quality ingredients message across and my friendly, smart waitress was word-perfect when explaining that high-rise antipasti plank.
‘Here you have Tuscan fennel salami; San Daniele proscuitto, buffalo mozzarella, pecorino cheese, the beetroot and other shaved root vegetable salad, olives, caper, chilli pepper, pistachio mortadella, my favourite,’ she beamed. It was all exemplary, but the salad was missing its promised chilli, lemon and mint.
A Devon chargrilled mackerel with pesto and rocket salad followed, pesky little bones the only drawback to this damned fine fish, the hectic kitchen understanding the art of fish cookery. The pesto was pitch-perfect as was the lemon-dressed chunky rocket. And what of the Flour Station breads? Where did the whole basket of differing types go? I scoffed the lot. Irresistible.
A large number of staff pace the joint, many excellent but others a tad gauche, barging and spending more time with colleagues than customers never a good idea – anywhere.
And the wait was considerable. But it’s early days at the newest kid on the Gunwharf block. This lover of quality food was very taken by the imaginative, accessible, earnest menu and the theatricality. The long-awaited show’s open so get queuing. My bill came to £28.20 including a good glass of Trebbiano and a rocket-fuelled double espresso but not service.
Jamie’s Italian, Canalside, Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth (023) 9200 0595.
No bookings taken except for large parties.
Open from 11.30am–late every day.
Food: Five (out of five)
Disabled access: Excellent
How to get there: Go into Portsmouth and follow the signs for Gunwharf Quays. Jamie’s Italian is by the canal. Parking is in large underground car park.