I think there’s often a misconception that Italian food is something which can only be truly enjoyed in the summer, when tomatoes and aubergines are at their freshest.
If there’s anywhere that sets that record straight, it’s the restaurant chain founded by and named after one half of the Greedy Italians, the late and very great Antonio Carluccio.
There is a Carluccio’s in Gunwharf Quays but if you want to swerve those extortionate parking fees and biting gusts of wind from the harbour, then heading to the Chichester branch is worth the short drive.
Situated at the quieter end of the high street, the restaurant’s location on the corner of Eastgate Square is quaint and somewhat intimate – one might imagine that dining alfresco on a sunnier day might be evocative of sitting in Piazza Umberto I in Carluccio’s hometown of Salerno. However, we were visiting in mid-December, and thought it best to take shelter in the warm.
That’s exactly what you’re met with walking into the restaurant – warmth and friendliness both from its staff and the modern yet homely interior. Initial service was perhaps a bit slow for a quiet night, but that was swiftly corrected after we ordered our drinks. Besides, much like a traditional Mediterranean family feast, this is not a meal that should be rushed..
The smooth Barbera Piedmont (£6.75 per 125ml glass), billed on the menu as ‘Antonio’s favourite’ red wine, offers flavours of cherries and berries, and the gamble I took on the Melchiori Biava Blance (£4.95 per 330ml bottle) – an unfiltered white craft beer – was well worth it for its wintery notes of orange peel and elderflower. It’s all the more refreshing to go into an Italian restaurant where there are more beer options that just Peroni.
For starters, the Sicilian arancini (£5.95) offer two contrasting tastes – the beef ragu and provolone cheese-stuffed rice ball is rich and moreish, while its buffalo mozzarella and basil-filled counterpart goes superbly with the bright pepolata sauce it’s served with. Meanwhile, Antonio’s chicken liver pâté (£6.50) is velvety when spread on grilled ciabatta, with a topping of red onion marmalade adding a sharp intensity.
The absence of a pizza-based failsafe on the menu encourages diners – myself included – to experiment a little more on the main course.
It’s always delightful to see a decent number of options for vegetarians and vegans on the menu which don’t give off thoughts of eating sawdust. For example, there the new dish of zucca con verdue arrostite (£11.75) – roasted butternut squash and a variety of vegetables with pine nuts, goat cheese and a drizzling of pesto – or the extremely tempting risotto al funghi (£12.50).
It was near impossible, however, to resist the gemelli alla luganica (£12.50), combining spiralling gemelli pasta – gemelli literally translating as ‘twins’, as the menu reliably informed me – and a ragu of spicy Luganica sausage and tomato. There’s no chance in Carluccio’s of being served a modest portion, and rightly so. Everything down to the generous topping of grated hard Italian cheese is, much like the restaurant itself, comforting and homelike.
Top tip: if the waiter recommends a little bit of fresh chilli oil on the side, it’s well worth following their advice, even if you’re not one for spice – it adds just that little extra potency to the tomato and herby sausage meat.
After the full-flavoured double-bill of arancini and ragu, I fancied a fruitier dessert for once, thinking a chocolatey closer may just be overwhelming. The meringa al frutto della passione (£5.75) has plenty of sharp flavours with passion fruit cream, fresh raspberries and raspberry coulis, balanced out by the light, fragrant meringue.
If you’re still feeling the wintery cravings of chocolate, the traditional Torino beverage biccerin (£3.00) will satisfy them by mixing espresso, drinking chocolate and cream. It’s best served with a small plate of artisanal Italian biscuits (£1.95) to seal a rather splendid deal.
As I left Carluccio’s, it was tough not to purchase at least a dozen goodies from the in-store deli, just so that I could take home a piece of this dining experience that I think the much-missed Godfather of Italian gastronomy would be proud of.
Ratings out of five:
Telephone: 01243 527412