There is one word that always seems to sum up Caffe Tirreno – thronging.
It has probably been Alnwick’s busiest restaurant over the past few years, whether in the depths of winter or in the height of the tourist season.
I can’t think of another where the queue for a table extends into the pub next door – literally!
If all tables are taken and there is a waiting list, staff will willingly let you enjoy a pint or gin and tonic in The Fleece and give you a call when it’s your turn for food.
One of its quirks is often one of its downfalls. You cannot book a table and have to turn up and take pot luck. Hit it at peak serving time and you run the risk of a long wait or having to decamp to another eaterie in town.
So why is the Tirreno so popular? I think it is a combination of factors – primarily it serves good, authentic Italian food at extremely reasonable prices – not exactly rocket science, but some other venues could learn a lot from the Tirreno.
One glance at the menu will reveal a restaurateur who is not greedy to squeeze every last penny from our beleaguered wallets.
It also has the added advantage of being in a prime location for Playhouse audiences, is unpretentious, almost apologetic, and pretty consistent.
It is not perfect – its size is restrictive (and leads to the aforementioned queues), it is noisy and peeling paint adds to the Mediterranean ambience – but that all combines to give it charm.
Caffe Tirreno has been a favourite of ours, particularly if we have been accompanied by the children or don’t want to break the bank.
Since the owner opened a second restaurant, Di Sopra, just along the road and a deli in the Market Place, the question I wanted to answer was has the original jewel in the crown suffered from a lack of attention.
We landed at the prime time in early evening but on Bank Holiday Monday expecting an empty restaurant. Quite the opposite – it was bustling and, true to form, we had to wait for a table.
But we were soon seated at a window table, able to gaze out at the crowds bedecked in red, white and blue, flocking to the Diamond Jubilee celebration at The Alnwick Garden.
I felt slightly unpatriotic sitting in an Italian restaurant but the spicy aromas coming from the kitchen soon removed any uneasiness .
The menu for such a small venue is vast. I admitted to being daunted by dish after dish and sat befuddled for while.
I usually keep it simple and plump for the gamberoni all’aglio – king prawns sauteed with garlic, butter, wine and parsley served with mixed salad and a cylinder of rice, or ‘prawn bad boys’ as we refer to the dish in the office. It is highly recommended.
For the purposes of this review, though, I thought I had better try something different.So I started with funghi trifolti (garlic mushrooms on a toasted slice of homemade bread, £3.95), and then opted for pollo al pepe (supreme of chicken sauteed with onions, mushrooms, French mustard, red wine and cream accompanied with chips, £8.95) and washed down with a couple of glasses of house red (£2 a glass – I told you it was bargain!). Both courses tasted better than they looked – their presentation looked as rushed as the clanking and banging kitchen sounded!
The mushrooms were piping hot and deliciously yet not over-poweringly garlicky. The chicken was succulent and deftly cooked in a creamy sauce with strong mustard overtones.
My wife went for peperone ripieno (roasted pepper filled with mixed vegetable risotto, £4.95) and her customary lasagne (£5.55). She much preferred the food served on a plate rather than in a pre-cooked dish and was suitably impressed with the flavours, although she too could have done with a salad garnish.
We only had one offspring with us and she started with bucce di patate (deep fried potato skins, £3.95) followed by chicken and sweetcorn pizza (8”, £4.95).
Perhaps we should have left it at that but we moved onto desserts and found a limited choice compared with the rest of the menu. My sticky toffee pudding with a dollop of whipped cream (£3.50) and my wife’s chocolate fudge cake (£4.50 with ice cream) were nothing to write home about but by then we had really had our fill and were properly satiated. Our bill for three people, three courses and two drinks each was under £50 - you can’t argue with that.