Angie Sammons on the Liverpool institution where the food isn’t the point
I can barely recall anything about Casa Italia other than we went there when we were young. Truly young.
With its rustic gingham tablecloths, warbling Caruso and a sweet trolley, yes, a sweet trolley, it was a sophisticated step up from Pizzaland. And, as none of us had ever been to Italy, it held something of a Corleone allure.
For a time there was a posher version upstairs where one could find first division footballers (pre-Premier League) in situ with blonde arm candy who had bagged them in the Conti.
Casa Italia has been kicking around forever, 42 years - and is a contender for the title of Liverpool’s oldest restaurant.
Marriage proposals over the melon and Parma ham
In 1976, the year that also spawned Dancing Queen and the hottest summer for generations, its opening coincided with that of two stellar near neighbours: Eric’s and Probe Records.
Otherwise there was very little to persuade the masses to flock onto this patch of crumbling fruit warehouses. The Stanley Street drag itself - and back then the only drag you’d find was in the Lisbon pub - was best known for the corner Kardomah Coffee House and a few offices. But the roaring trade was to be found in a musical instrument shop owned by a man called Frank Hessy who would tell anyone who cared to listen - boys in biker jackets and their bored girlfriends (me among them) - how he sold John Lennon his first guitar.
Casa Italia has survived the lot and now it is a fixed point in Liverpool time.
Everyone has been, everyone has a story. Marriage proposals over the melon and Parma ham, a teenager’s first ever dinner out, birthdays saluted with blush Lambrusco.
2018 and we are outside in the rain, in the middle of a long line of people inching, for the last 25 minutes, towards the door. It’s a street spectacle, partly explained by the restaurant’s no bookings policy. But even so.
Our fellow diners-in-waiting are an animated, eager bunch, families young and old in stout coats. Their high spirits are silently observed by Tommy Steele’s sculpted Eleanor Rigby in permanent solitary confinement on the opposite pavement. Table for one Madam?
Like her I have found myself fairly friendless when, down the years, I have suggested reviewing Casa Italia, which is evidently not good enough for the entitled circle of people eating and drinking for free on my exes (just everyone else).
Happily this doesn’t apply to the tour guide who is generally up for anything and once inside it all makes sense. We’re squeezed into a table for two, which has as much room for manoeuvre as a Ryanair seat. However it is a decent vantage point to enjoy the hustle and bustle of the hungry hordes who have come out in their weekend best.
Everything here comes with a side order of nostalgia - from the traditional trattoria decor to the basic wine glasses which have changed little since the Dancing Queen days.
And perhaps we could be forgiven for knowing no better back then, but neither has the food. You suspected that anyway.
Trying to dodge carbs in a place like this is pointless but we do, neatly swerving the “home made breads”.
We make a dash for the mixed olives (£2.95) and mixed salad (£3.85). Both are good enough, however each is drenched in Casa Italia’s "special dressing” which has been made with a disproportionate measure of eye watering vinegar and it soon becomes difficult to carry on.
Yet one can hardly complain about portion sizes or prices and, from the 17 pizzas and 23 pasta dishes, nothing is over a tenner.
One is even able to order a small or large version of their selected dish, the difference is less than a couple of quid. We therefore pick piccolo over grande and are rewarded with our own collective bodyweight in cheese.
Cannelloni (£7.75), earnestly described as oven baked meat-filled crepes with mozzarella, tomato and bechamel, is light on the first ingredient and hefty on the rest, arriving distended and bloated with pasta. Even a hod carrier might find it hard going to finish.
The same can be said of the vegetarian lasagne (£7.25) whose vegetable element consists of old school dinner staple peas and sweetcorn in a lot of white sauce that rages up like boiling lava once the blackened, scorched crust has been breached.
Desserts are better. These days there is no room for that unfeasibly large sweet trolley to wend its way among the density of tables. It’s hard to go wrong with ice cream (£1.98).
A vast bowl of bottomless tiramisu (£4.50) is served in the spirit of times past when our charming Italian waiter enquires of the lovely ladies: “Do you want the squirty cream or the boring cream?”
Thinking about it he probably said the pouring cream. Memory is a funny thing.
Casa Italia, 36-40, Stanley St, Liverpool L1 6AL.Tel: 0151 227 5774
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. 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.
Olives 5, mixed salad 5, cannelloni 6, vegetarian lasagne 5, tiramisu 7, ice cream 6
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