Carluccio's empire has finally reached the desolate North East. Newcastle must be the last city in the land to get a branch of this chain.
You can’t go anywhere without spotting the ubiquitous blue and white branding.
There are three in Manchester and five in Dubai. There’s even one in Istanbul.
Now they’ve taken over the prime location of the old NatWest bank in Grey Street.
It’s a clever concept: you think you’re buying into the vision of the genial white-haired celebrity chef, but the Carluccio machine isn’t actually owned by Antonio Carluccio at all. He’s just a consultant who gets wheeled out to openings to sign the books they sell in the deli.
The chain was created by his now ex-wife Priscilla and began as a single deli serving breakfast and light lunches. It’s expanded rapidly to become Middle England’s favourite food chain, but it’s actually owned by a Middle Eastern conglomerate – hence the branches in Dubai.
Its British management team is run by a clever chap called Simon Kossoff. He knows how to pack them in and sell them not very cheap.
Expensive lemon-infused olive oil, balsamic vinegar, pasta and dried mushrooms are sold in the deli, along with bread and some of the kitchen’s dishes. The shop supports the restaurant’s turnover during quiet periods.
It doesn’t rank against proper delis, like Mmm, across the road in the Grainger Market, which has a much better range of Italian produce.
How does it rate as an eaterie? I wouldn’t normally review a restaurant so soon after opening but, as scores of these have launched over the past few years, I reckoned everything would be sorted by Wednesday lunchtime. It was packed. I started with ‘lemon spritz’, a cocktail of lemoncello and lemonade with a splash of Prosecco.
It was refreshing, accompanied by good marinated olives and the restaurant’s signature breadbasket with authentic Italian breads, including some delicious fruit bread with caraway seeds. That all came to £11.75.
The menu is comfortable rustic-Italian – tuna fishcakes, panzanella salad, the usual range of pastas, sea bass, fish stew and some daily specials.
Mrs Diner sampled the fixed price menu – £9.95 for two courses – while I was more ambitious with the specials. Mrs D had chargrilled garlic focaccia to start, with penne alla puttanesca, and I ordered a half-portion of the risotto special, followed by lamb steak with caponata.
Our sophisticated youngest child chose spinach and ricotta ravioli from the £6.50 kids’ menu.
The focaccia was light as a feather and smothered with garlic, but that’s all – it needed a little dollop of sauce on the side.
My zucchini and gorgonzola risotto was creamy and glistened properly but had been hanging around for a while.
It was garnished meanly with a tiny strip of half-burned courgette and the gorgonzola had made it so salty that I ordered a glass of house red wine.
Without asking, they brought me a large glass. It was rough and cheap.
Which is also a pretty good description of Mrs Diner’s puttanesca sauce. It was overwhelmed by olives. Puttanesca is not traditional Italian – it hails from the 1960s – but we tend to like it spicy, with sweetness from garlic, piquancy from capers and tomatoes, and saltiness from olives and anchovy.
Instead, this was bitter olive sauce with tinned, unreduced tomatoes. It was unpleasant.
Not as nasty as my lamb, though. For £14.50 I expected a proper entrée, with garnish and maybe a vegetable. What arrived was a solitary slice of leg and a spoonful of cold caponata, straight from the fridge.
The lamb was bleating and oozed blood. Now I like my lamb pink, but this was raw. There was no accompaniment, no greenery. It was barely seared, uncooked flesh.
Returned to the kitchen (from which no apologies emerged) it was returned medium-rare but devoid of flavour. The lamb was of poor quality and had been neither marinated nor seasoned.
The caponata was worse. It’s supposed to be sweet and sour, with chunks of quality creamy aubergine, but this had far too much vinegar.
It attacked the senses with as much subtlety as an Italian politician on heat. The only success was Junior Diner’s ravioli, which was homemade and delicious. The service was so slow, taking nearly two hours for two courses (our waiter said the kitchen was having an off-day), there was no time for dessert.
Junior Diner enjoyed excellent chocolate gelati, while we tackled a bill for £65, presented without apology for either delay or poor cooking.
Secret Diner’s Verdict
(out of 5 stars)
89 Grey Street
0191 230 2148
Opening times: Mon to Sat: 8am – 11pm Sun: 9am – 10.30pm
Our experience [at The Rat Inn] was totally different from yours.
We found the food acceptable but not the service, which was slow in the extreme. They mixed up our order and one female waitress was particularly rude.
It is also a pity that the website menu bore no likeness to the lunchtime offering.
Yours, J Mattinson, Cliffe House, Corbridge
Dear Secret Diner,
You should have tried the Northumbrian rib of beef, worth every penny.
So pleased you enjoyed the whole experience, but did you really have to tell the rest of the North East about this gem?
Keep up the good work,
Regards, Sean Hedley
Did you agree with the Secret Diner’s Verdict? Do you know a special place to eat in the North East? Email him at email@example.com