Vicky Andrews finds a gluten-free Italian in South Liverpool (eventually)
Being a food critic isn’t always straightforward. All you want to do is discover cool new places, eat great food and share the joy with everyone. Like what Greg Wallace does on Big Weekend Away, but less punchable in the face.
Sea bass fillets came draped across sauteed potatoes like naked twins sunbathing on a pebble beach
The place that I had intended to eat at for the purposes of this review was The Barn on Smithdown Road. I’d seen people raving about it on social media; decent breakfasts, snazzy cocktails, a rustic Mediterranean oasis in the middle of the busy dual-carriageway that divides L15.
I knew I’d be visiting with a celiac friend, but after studying the menu I was confident that a gluten-free option wouldn’t be an issue. A platter of meat and cheese; chicken with roasted new potatoes; lamb chops with thyme, oregano and red wine; a sirloin steak with salad. There’s always something that “Celia K” can eat, even if she has to watch me shoveling freshly-baked and buttered bread into my glutenous gob.
Or at least you would think. Rocking up, grabbing a table and eyeing up bellinis on the upstairs balcony, we asked about gluten-free options. Nothing. Nothing? Can you double-check with the chef? Nope, nothing.
“It’s all Italian-style food, and everything is covered in…” our server tried to explain, grabbing the air with her hands as if she was literally clutching at invisible straws. She never finished that sentence, and I never did find out what everything was covered in, or how the fuck any kitchen can’t make a beetroot and goat’s cheese salad gluten-free.
The Barn door firmly shut, we got in the car and went in search of somewhere else to eat.
I can’t tell you a damn thing about the history of L’Olivetto on Rose Lane, because it doesn’t tell me anything on their website. Lazy journalism from me, perhaps, but enquiring about the background of the staff does nothing for the incognito approach to reviewing and can in fact get you thrown out if you look like you might work for the government.
Not that I suspect L’Olivetto has anything to hide. Our host - a proper Scouse bird - was friendly and reassuring; happy to humour my crap jokes and talk about the wine, but simmering with a sass that could cut an unruly patron down in the flash of a smile.
The menu is an absolute carb-fest and at first glance you might think that these four walls were the equivalent of celiac Kryptonite. Incredibly, L’Olivetto does gluten-free versions of all its pasta dishes and gluten-free bread. Okay, it’s not freshly-baked Italian focaccia, bruschetta or garlic baguettes, but I think you can see where this is going.
I was hungry after all that dicking around in Smithdown, so we ordered two starters; antipasto (£6) and insalata tricolore (£6). Fresh mozzarella peeped out from a delicate huddle of tomatoes and green leaves, begging to be flipped over and enjoyed.
A salad should be foolproof but it’s so easy for eager chefs to get carried away with the tossing. Not so here; each layer had its own distinct flavour, from the sweetness of the cherry tomatoes and basil, to the peppery rocket, drizzled in a sticky balsamic glaze.
The antipasto was another playful pile, a merry selection of mortadella, bresaola, prosciutto and crispy chorizo - casually fleshed but immaculately dressed on the wooden board. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert in gluten-free bread but this stuff on the platter was bloody good and boshing it into the olive oil and balsamic vinegar with a slap of meat and olives folded inside was probably the best GF sandwich I’ll ever try.
The mains were exactly as Italian food should be; simple, fresh ingredients made with ladles of love and a sprinkle of alchemy. The gluten-free version of fettuccine alla L'Olivetto (£10) was another tricolore-inspired conquest, al dente fusilli tossed with smoked bacon and pepperoni, mushrooms, garlic, chilli and spring onion, lubricated with a splash of olive oil and shavings of parmesan.
It danced across the palate like a pinball machine, pinging through sweet, salt and spice. And just a tenner too; I’ve spent more playing the arcade machines for ten minutes on Southport Pier.
One of my pet hates is meat or fish served on top of vegetables, but it didn’t bother Celia K that her sea bass came draped across sauteed potatoes like a pair of naked twins sunbathing on a pebble beach. And two fillets? Filetto di Branzino (£18) was a big old portion and certainly qualified the higher price. Yellow heritage tomatoes bobbed in ripples of balsamic dressing under a lemon sun. I really hope the chef was trying to paint a beach on this plate or I might just be losing my mind and in desperate need of a holiday.
The dessert we had wasn’t made in-house, but when it’s a strawberry panna cotta (£5.95) from Paolo & Donato, an authentic Italian deli in the city centre, then who’s complaining? Two spoons scraped the last of the cream from inside the glass jar and we were done.
With two large glasses of Pinot Grigio (£7) and one small Valpolicella Classico (£6.70), the bill came to under 70 quid, which isn’t bad at all for a three course meal in Allerton. Great food, great service and “Seriously Italian” as the name says.
It doesn’t seem like much has changed since Confidentials last popped into L’Olivetto four and a half years ago. Apart from the addition of anti-covid screens in between tables, bang on trend for 2020. Hopefully, we’re not going to need those for much longer.
“Italian food is actually one of the easiest to make gluten-free,” said our host, as we did all that cutesy small talk and gathered up our myriad of belongings. And with that line, she hit the barn door bang on.
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.
Antipasto 7, tricolore salad 8, pasta 7, seabass 8, panna cotta 6
Going against the grain
Bit quiet where we were - missing a pasta the action