Local knowledge is always important and where places to eat are concerned, I believe that if the locals like it and go regularly, then you’re probably onto a winner.
We have friends who live in the west of Northumberland – I don’t know why either as the county’s north is clearly superior – but it affords us the opportunity to eat out a little further from home, occasionally discovering something that offers something a little different to our normal stomping ground.
So it was when we ate at The Wood Oven, in Wylam, on Saturday night after working up an appetite with a few pints of ale at the Boathouse, beside the Tyne, which is also well worth a visit (but not as good as The Tanners Arms in Alnwick!).
Reassuringly, The Wood Oven is like Ronseal, and does exactly what it says on the tin.
The relatively small restaurant features a large wood oven, perfect for cooking authentically Italian, and very tasty, pizzas.
The beauty of this as a business model was proved by not just the full restaurant, with a number of the tables being reused, but also the roaring takeaway trade that seemed to continue throughout the evening.
Having said it was like Ronseal, I have to confess that this lazy and incredibly clichéd simile is actually wrong too as the ‘tin’ doesn’t really say very much at all.
There is a banner-style sign attached to the railings outside, but the building itself is unmarked and does not scream ‘restaurant’.
More, it reminded me of the reception of the clerical offices of some minor local-authority department, though apparently it used to be the village shop.
Once inside, the surroundings become more familiar with the decor and atmosphere certainly reminiscent of an Italian trattoria or pizzeria.
The large wood oven is framed by a bright, colourful and highly-decorative surround, meaning it really is a focal point of the dining room.
Another nice touch is that the kitchen is not hidden away at the back, but extends out into the main room in front of the oven, meaning not only can you see your pizza being cooked authentically, but also see the chefs tossing the dough, spreading the tomato purée and placing the toppings on.
The only slight issue with this is that the room does get pretty hot and this was despite the door and windows being open.
There is a small selection of starters and antipasti on offer, plus the likes of bread and olives, to whet the appetite ahead of the main event.
However, despite the limited selection, there was plenty of invention, for example, tomato bread with chilli vodka (£3.45).
Three of us went for the Geordie antipasto (£5.45 for one, £9.95 for two and then add a person for £4.50), which was a cracking idea and very tasty too.
It consisted of ham hock terrine, baby cheese savoury stotties, Hagg Bank beer-pickled quail eggs, pease pudding, smoked bacon, pea and ham salad and homemade piccallili. There is also a vegetarian antipasto plate.
The fourth of our party had the sole starter on the specials sheet, the cucumber spaghetti salad (£4.95), Wylam gin-cured salmon with chervil, lemon celery and cucumber spaghetti. It too showed a little thought and was fresh-looking, while ticking the box on the taste side.
There were 13 red pizzas (with crushed plum tomato sauce) and one white (with cream cheese sauce) on the main menu with another three pizzas among the specials.
I was excited to be able to choose one with two ingredients I have never had on top of a pizza.
The lamb merguez sausage (£10.95), came topped with the aforementioned spiced meat as well as another personal favourite of mine, but not many others, sweetbreads, alongside wild garlic purée and fior di latte mozzarella.
The base was very light with the right balance of softness and crispiness, the sauce had clearly seen fresh tomatoes in the not-too-distant past and there was a generous amount of cheese, lamb merguez and sweetbreads.
My friend went for the same pizza as me, while the ladies chose the spicy lamb meatballs and the goat’s cheese pizzas (both £9.45).
All of us agreed that they were certainly among the best pizzas we have eaten, high praise indeed as all of us have eaten in Italy.
The residents of Wylam are indeed lucky to have this on their doorstep.
ATTENTION TO THE ART DOES PAY OFF
According to the menu: “Our pizzas are made with a slow-rising dough (only flour, water, salt and yeast sour dough starter) and baked in a traditional wood-fired oven using only wood in temperatures in excess of 500c. Our aim is to produce a smoky, slightly sour, light-puffed crust with some char.” This commitment to a top pizza is commendable and really does pay off in terms of taste. In terms of a children’s menu, for £5, those up to 10 can create their own pizza from a selection of toppings, which is followed by a scoop of ice cream.
SELECTION FROM THE MENU
Pizza garlic bread......£2.95
Garlic king prawns......£6.95
Bladnoch whisky & salmon......£6.95
Ham, mushroom & olives......£9.45
Pork fennel sausage......£9.45
Courgette & preserved lemon (white)......£7.95
Homemade chunky chips......£2.95
Seasonal daily salad......£2.95
STAR RATINGS (out of 10)
Quality of food......9
Value for money......7
Access for disabled......8
Toilet for disabled......Yes
Verdict: A good idea, very good pizza and some excellent touches. A real taste of Italy in the North East.
Contact: 01661 852552 or www.facebook.com/thewoodoven