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)

Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Life and Style
Melissa and Joan Rivers together at an NBC event in May 2014
peopleDaughter Melissa thanks fans for 'outpouring of support'
Life and Style
Life and Style
One in six drivers cannot identify a single one of the main components found under the bonnet of an average car
motoringOne in six drivers can't carry out basic under-bonnet checks
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found
peopleWrestling veteran drifting in and out of consciousness
Arts and Entertainment
Shady character: Jon Hamm as sports agent JB Bernstein in Million Dollar Arm
filmReview: Jon Hamm finally finds the right role on the big screen in Million Dollar Arm
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

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone