Food & Drink: From Mamma, via Marco and Pinocchio: Emily Green samples old and new styles of Italian cooking in the restaurants of Norwich

BRITISH cuisine owes a considerable debt to the Italians. Before we as a nation began to get seriously passionate about 'good food' they were a formative presence here, enticing us into coffee bars, ice-cream parlours and delicatessens, tickling our palates with a taste for the new and the different.

For the past 23 years, Genoa-born Marco Vessalio has served Norwich. His restaurant, Marco's, opened in a handsome Elizabethan building in Pottergate in 1969. By 1972 Raymond Postgate wrote of it in the Good Food Guide: 'This new Italian restaurant raises the tone of Norwich considerably.' It noted specialities of parma ham, salami, pasta and zabaglione. The table d'hote was 80p, a meal from the carte about pounds 2.

By 1987, the guide was still noting Mr Vessalio's parma ham, spaghetti and zabaglione. Yet local restaurateurs and suppliers will tell a different story. Mr Vessalio, they say, was rare in that he would take small quantities of fresh fish or vegetables from smallholders, long before it was fashionable to eschew big suppliers for local produce. When lunch might have been exorbitantly expensive at fashionable French-style places in 1987, his set lunch was pounds 10.

Times have changed. Marco's fixed- price meal, lunch or dinner, is now pounds 19. We had two courses, coffee, a glass each of house wine, and a bottle for about pounds 15 and, including tip, our meal cost more than pounds 30 each. Nearby, a once Michelin- starred chef, David Adlard, is doing two courses for pounds 10. And in spite of his long tenure, Marco's cannot match Adlard's professionalism.

For a start there was the sole figure tending front of house. It was as if the real manager were ill, and the replacement had ducked in from a shop next door without a clue about restaurant service. She offered us a drink at the bar, then left it in the dining room while we twiddled our thumbs.

Set in a former parlour, the dining room is in the creamy yellow country house hotel vein. It implies formality, but pop music and kitchen racket spills from the kitchen where Mr Vessalio appears to do all the cooking single- handedly. Strange results came from those loudly clanking pans. Dishes that professional kitchens normally botch proved delicious, while more straightforward restaurant fodder was poor.

Gnocchi, delicate potato dumplings, almost never work in a restaurant. Made by an experienced Italian housewife, they may take all afternoon but they will be delicious. In British restaurants, save Marco's, they tend to be sheer rubber. Mr Vessalio does them swimming in a creamy sauce with well-cooked button mushrooms, parmesan and parsley. Clearly he is a good cook.

Lamb, however, is difficult to ruin. Marco's 'mignotte d'agnello all'abbruzzese (sic)' managed it. The ground pepper implied by the mignotte was imperceptible. A wine and pepper sauce, the abruzzese bit, was sour and poorly reduced. The meat was indifferent quality and slightly overcooked. Risotto, enough for two people, was undercooked in what tasted like a bland vegetable stock. Small chunks of courgettes did not help. Halibut, served in a heavy cream sauce, was lifted by using a sparkling wine in the sauce.

FOR some of this country's original Italian restaurateurs, it must seem a bitter irony that they are being outstripped at their own cuisine by young British chefs. New at the game in Norwich is the Roux-trained restaurateur Nigel Raffles. Two years ago, he opened St Benedicts Grill. It looked like a twee coffee shop out of Twin Peaks, the till jammed and service was chaos, but the food and wine were great. Today it still looks like some weirdly quaint American coffee shop, but service is smooth and the food remains great.

Next door there was a restaurant called Pinocchio's, a large Italian place which was modern, jazzy and inviting. Judging by appearances, it should have been more successful than Raffles's operation. But it wasn't. It might have been the food or the service - the name could not have helped. But by last year the lights at Pinocchio's had been turned off. Mr Raffles took it on, quickly installed a good young team - Andy Parle and Nicola Parsons, the cooks, and Simon Butcher, manager - and reopened it for business last December. It has the makings of a local that will run and run.

There are enough Italian staples so that those who want lasagne or fettucine carbonara will have it, and those in search of 'modern Italian' cooking get a look-in as well. Make that a peep: the chefs can cook, but it seems that cooking Italian food is a new brief. A delicious osso bucco, savoury braised veal, came with what was described as risotto. It tasted more like Uncle Ben's long grain cooked off in good stock.

Salad dressing accompanying lightly battered fried squid was creamy and bitter - as if it had whacking amounts of dried herbs. The squid, however, was good. 'Italian olive oil bread' lacked acidity and had a slightly bouncy sponge for a rustic bread, but it made a perfectly decent white loaf with a good crust. Its accompanying tapenade was caper-rich and pleasing. It is tempting to take bets that most of the food, if not terribly authentic, will be good.

The wine list is bog standard and needs work. Guest wines, such as a crisp Gavi di Gavi from Piedmont, are on offer for about pounds 15 as specials. It had not occurred to the manager to serve the Gavi by the glass before this was requested, but he cheerfully obliged.

Marco's, 17 Pottergate, Norwich (0603 624044). Fixed-price lunch and dinner menu pounds 19. Vegetarian meals. Children welcome; special portions. Open lunch and dinner Tue-Sat. Major credit cards.

Pinocchio's, 11 St Benedicts Street, Norwich (0603 613318). Children welcome; special portions. Taped music, live jazz or flamenco Mon & Thur. Open Mon-Sat 6-11pm. Visa, Access.

(Photograph omitted)

Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas