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)

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice