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.
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