Vince Margiotta's latest venture is everything you could want in your neighbourhood, says Gerry Corner
WE felt it the instant we stepped from a January day of dull indifference into the warm light of this family-run affair.
That all too uncommon feeling that everything is going to be all right.
Cucina di Vincenzo is pretty much everything you want from a neighbourhood restaurant – smart, welcoming, well-lit, with good food at prices that will not induce cardiac arrest.
Three out of four Margiottas were on the floor, each bringing their own brand of charm and good humour to the tables
Margiotta has extracted the essence of a career and a culture and poured it carefully into the restaurant bearing the Italian expression of his name.
Eating and drinking runs through his curriculum vitae, courses his veins. Margiotta grew up in Scotland where his forefathers had arrived (some for the work, some as wartime prisoners) with little more than an innate enthusiasm for food and hospitality.
They took that and turned it into a decent living, providing steel workers and shipbuilders, stomachs operating on empty, with instant energy in the form of ice cream and fish and chips (they weren’t ready for pasta).
Indeed their hold on those portions of the catering industry was so widespread that Scottish Italians have been credited with establishing the fish supper as a mainstay of the British diet. But you can blame only the Scots for the deep fried confectionery bar.
By chance, the Scottish/Italian way with food, born in southern Europe, refined in Caledonia, has taken hold here. In and around Bold Street, Rosaria Crolla and partner Maurizio Pellegriono have built the Italian Club’s three branches into a thriving and popular brand.
Meanwhile, cousin Vincent, after a career encompassing everything from Princes Foods to Japanese restaurant chain Sapporo Teppanyaki, is threatening to overtake her reputation for homely food in homely rooms.
His last involvement with Italian cuisine was Il Forno, a warehouse-scale concern on city centre Duke Street. Now he’s downsized to the suburbs, running this small (ish) family restaurant with his wife and two daughters.
Cucina occupies the space previously taken by Pruno, a Mediterranean restaurant, which evidently had its share of fans. I have no idea what brought about its downfall but a name that sounds like a remedy for constipation surely can’t have helped.
Assuming the smoothly efficient young server was a clan member, that made three out of four Margiottas on the floor, each bringing their own brand of charm and good humour to the tables, starting with the sort of unaffected greeting you can’t fake.
Don’t take my word, the editor of Liverpool Confidential called in a few days later and reported exactly the same agreeable experience. No surprise, then, that there was a healthy to-ing and fro-ing in our hour and a half over a Thursday lunch.
Vincent’s physical attributes are Mrs Margiotta’s affair, but Vincenzo’s is a looker all right. Low slung lamps, exposed brickwork, ducting overhead and boards underfoot may be standard fare for the Liverpool dining scene, circa 2017, but each is achieved with a discerning eye.
Actually there are a couple of things you won’t see elsewhere; two magnificently imposing ornate cast iron crosses, holding the figures of Jesus and Mary, which, rescued from a French burial ground, have achieved their own form of salvation, from the cemetery to the gravy, via a Liverpool antique dealer.
The good taste extends, mostly speaking, to the food. Fritto misto (£17), a two-person platter of finely battered Sicilian prawns, baby squid and salmon, with lemon wedges and a gently piquant lemon mayonnaise, was light and fresh and greaseless, and, with a glass of something appropriate, would have made for a happy lunch by itself.
That mayo was so moreish we asked for more and they gladly obliged. It could have stood a little extra garlic but apparently some people would not like that. “Some people,” they confided, “ask if there is any garlic in the pasta.”
Croquetttes (£2.95) were the only disappointment; while perfectly well cooked cylinders of cheese, potato and prosciutto, they were otherwise single toned and under-seasoned, uncharged missiles. A dipping sauce of tomato juice and a dash of olive oil, was thin and smacked of the tin.
By contrast, a couple of hefty sausages (£13), flown in from Sicily via Milan, are heady with spice including the whack of fennel, and would make handy cudgels should the Mob come knocking at the door.
They came on a bed of wild spinach, which takes the jaws a little more time to tame than the domesticated sort. Good stuff, it was cooked up with chilli and garlic, but the Popeye-sized portion could have been reduced and a few potatoes added.
With the dish already at the table, I gambled and ordered a side of roast potatoes (£2.95), a challenge many restaurants would answer by delivering them with the desserts.
Vincent was in his element, however. “Give me three minutes,” he said, taking my plate and bringing the lot back together, none the worse, three minutes later, which is probably a world record and at least worthy of some sort of catering award.The potatoes, rosemary-scented and golden, were worth the effort.
Beautiful beef ragu (£11) is made to his mother’s own meat sauce recipe, cooked for 10 hours to a meltingly rich finish. I’m guessing the pasta was not made in the kitchen but it was perfectly serviceable rigatoni that nonetheless.
Daughter number two, it transpired, had been casting spells on the desserts. I don’t know her age, but she’s certainly too young to be turning out puds this good without sorcery – a creamy pannacotta (£5) better than any I have tasted, and a crumb-topped apple tart (£5) whose every texture and tone was perfectly pitched.
In a life dedicated to putting food into mouths, Cucina di Vincenzo may prove Vincent Margiotta’s crowning moment. Just don’t sack the pastry chef.
Ambience (out of 5)
Service (out of 5)
Food (out of 10)
Worth the trip