This place started out life as a little coffee shop called the Lugano. Then in the 1970s it became Restaurant Italia, a North East institution that just about kept itself alive until the end of 2012.
By then a weary lasagna-and-minestrone joint, with red carpets, chairs and tablecloths, green and brown patterned wallpaper and wooden ceilings with fake fishing nets, it was the sort of place that should have been humanely put to sleep in the 90s, but had somehow managed to survive through the loyal support of an ageing clientele, comforted by a familiar, unchallenging menu and low prices.
Thankfully, Italian food in Britain has moved on since then. Step forward Rosa Twelve.
It’s undergone a complete transformation. Outside there’s a little patio with tables for coffee, downstairs a relaxed café and pizzeria, upstairs a modern, colourful restaurant.
They also have a cicchetti bar in the basement (named after its Lugano predecessor), which they’ve subtitled “Italian tapas” for the uninitiated.
The restaurant is still red and black, but with a clean, European atmosphere and, best of all, the new owners have removed the old first floor kitchen to reveal the most fantastic view of the hills over the Team Valley. It’s a relaxing, spacious room, with a large bar, comfortable faux leather seating and red silk rose petals floating in little candleholders.
It’s a family business: well, to be accurate, it’s about to become a family business, for its owners, a charming couple called James and Ashleigh, got engaged a couple of weeks go. These two hosts are as friendly and obliging as any you could meet, with a lot of experience in the restaurant industry. They are rightly passionate about their new establishment.
It has no airs and graces, the dining makes no claims to be fine, nor does it appear to have any pretension to challenge more formal places in Newcastle. It’s a relaxed local joint, and clearly the locals are loving it. There were people downstairs who’d popped in for coffee or a pizza, and upstairs the cheerful atmosphere was infectious. This place doesn’t need a happy hour – it’s permanently jovial.
As to the food: it’s really a bistro, with a good range of pastas and pizzas, but also a list of pretty standard main courses. There are scallops and oysters, mussels and prawns to start, and the mains include steaks (Diane, peppercorn), rack of lamb, chicken cordon bleu, lobster and so on. None of this is either particularly modern or Italian, but it somehow fits with the comfortable friendliness of the staff and the place. The chef used to work at Louis’ in Jesmond, so comes with a good pedigree.
I started with creamy duck liver and foie gras – more parfait than pâté, it was as smooth and light as ice cream.
It was accompanied by excellent onion marmalade and garnished with pea shoots. Then came nicely grilled fresh squid, dressed with a mouth-tingling chilli, garlic and coriander sauce, which really needs to be toned down a notch for comfort. I ordered a glass of very good Albariño to cool off.
Eventually I had to test Rosa’s Italian credentials, so I tried the wild mushroom risotto. The mushrooms were fresh, I could taste some parmesan, but this dish lacked that smooth, glistening, buttery texture of proper Italian cooking. It needed balance and depth: nothing that a little butter, mushroom stock and truffle oil wouldn’t sort out. But then, this isn’t fine dining, and at £4.95 for a starter portion, it was a bargain.
All the portions were huge. I ordered duck breast, and a whole side of Gressingham waddled to the table, beautifully pink, with cherries and a mound of savoy cabbage and mashed potato. It was far too much for one – though it didn’t deter an attempt on the desserts.
These made no claim to Italian provenance: banoffie pie, sticky toffee pudding, toffee cheesecake, a range of Beckleberry ice creams – I chose lemon posset, expecting a dainty little mouth cleanser. A huge creamy flagon arrived, topped with coulis, delicious, but enough for the entire restaurant. They clearly don’t do portion control in Low Fell.
I suspect Rosa Twelve’s ambitious menu is too big for its kitchen. When will restaurants learn that the standard of cooking is almost always in inverse proportion to the number of dishes on offer? Cut the list in half, add some daily specials to keep the regulars amused, and the cooking here could be very good indeed.
But it easily deserved three stars, which is probably good for Low Fell, and certainly good enough for me. I loved the atmosphere, appreciated the service and really enjoyed my meal. Rosa Twelve is a welcome addition to my recommended list.
Secret Diner’s Verdict (out of 5 stars).
580 Durham Road
Low Fell, Gateshead
Tyne & Wear, NE9 6HX
0191 487 8257
Mon-Fri 11am-2.30pm, 5pm-10pm Sat 11am-10pm