Jonathan Schofield doesn't really know what on earth is going on but it's fun
Monday night at 7pm and there was one restaurant in Liverpool with a queue down the street.
If you know Liverpool at all you'll know which one; you'll know it just had to be Casa Italia, that enigma on Stanley Street, an institution as embedded in Liverpool as the cries of the seagulls whirring above.
As a newcomer to this 47-year-old restaurant I simply had no idea what was going on, so I decided to wait and find out for myself. I went to the Municipal Hotel, not far away, had a glass or two and went back. I eventually made it into Casa Italia at 8.30pm.
Outside and inside Casa Italia should be part of a new institution titled The National Museum of Italian Restaurants with this being the 1970s gallery.
There's the faux pan tiled dinky roof outside which is totally at odds with the building’s architecture. Inside there's a migraine pale yellow and orange combo of painted bare brick, the crockery is rugged and seems to want to punch people, the menus are A3 laminated and green, white and red, of course. To really round things off there are red gingham polyester tablecloths.
The only disappointment was the tables didn't host bottles nesting in straw and covered in melted wax with a red candle sticking out like a Christmas decoration wondering if it's a phallus. But as a consolation there is Martini on the drinks list.
To go to Casa Italia appears hereditary. It's a moment of stability in an ever-changing world.
As for the food I'm not sure it matters very much. Casa Italia is all about the repeat visit, a nostalgia that, from the look of some customers, stretches back 47 years to opening night. These people then took their kids and then their grandkids so now it attracts people in their late teens and twenties who want to relive their childhood experience or just go somewhere familiar. To go to Casa Italia appears hereditary. It's a moment of stability in an ever-changing world.
There might also be another reason for the popularity as often mentioned in customer reviews. The food is cheapish if not cheap and comes in big portions.
I went for a classic starter, main and dessert and the result was three dishes that looked more or less identical because, ill-advisedly, I went for polpette (£7.45), cannelloni (£14.95) and tiramisu (£5). Pictorially this is the worst combo I've ever chosen in many years of writing. I looked up some Tripadvisor photos and it seemed there is some food colours at Casa Italia other than red and brown.
The polpette, aka meatballs, were drowned in the sauce. You couldn't see any rock-formation humps of meat cresting the sauce. It was a view into the crater of Etna, a lava lake. Why not chop some fresh basil onto that lava lake and lend some lively green to the rusty scene? The meatballs were dreary, stubborn, the whole dish was dreary. I unscrewed the top of the Parmesan dispenser to throw in as much cheese as I could to deliver substance and flavour.
The cannelloni were big and hot and heavy. That's all I can say, there's nothing else to say, there was a vaguely tomatoey flavour. I couldn't even approach finishing it.
The tiramisu was fine, moreish, all Marsala wine, marscapone with cocoa and yielding ladyfinger. It was what you'd expect. Best thing I ate by a mile.
What was clear from my visit was the food isn't the reason for Casa Italia's popularity, it's the buzz, the ambience, the affability.
There are happy birthdays and jovialities and generosities. The food is a sideshow and a fuckwit reviewer like me an irrelevance. What did matter is the place is a total and happy success, it’s struck a chord and no matter how much fine dining snobbery or hipster condescension might be directed its way, this place is giving its audience exactly what they want. So they queue even on a Monday.
Opposite Casa Italia is a statue of the fictional Eleanor Rigby. In most cities the story goes you’re never more than six feet from a rat, if this is so, then in Liverpool you’re never more than six feet from a rat and a Beatles’ reference.
‘All the lonely people, where do they all come from?’ sang Paul McCartney, who’s apparently dined in Casa Italia. Who knows where they’ve all come from but it appears that lots of them have gone to Casa Italia, but the thing is, they’re not lonely, they’re having a proper party.
I wish the place another 47 years. Sod the food, I think the place is great.
Casa Italia, 36-40 Stanley St, Liverpool L1 6AL
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, and ALWAYS paid for by Confidentials and completely independent of any commercial relationship. They are a first-person account of one visit by one, knowledgeable restaurant reviewer and don't represent the company as a whole.
If you want to see the receipt as proof this magazine paid for the meal then a copy will be available upon request.
Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you’re passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
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Polpette 4, cannelloni 4.5, tiramisu 6