La dolce vita

A little bit of Italy in the centre of Newcastle is attraction enough for Alastair Gilmour and family

The Gilmours are learning Italian. Not that we yearn to scour a pizzeria menu in complete confidence or even be certain that orecchietta pasta is ear-shaped, but because the lessons are held in an Italian café-restaurant.
A splendido Italian café-restaurant.

Our tutor’s stated aim is to get the whole class pronouncing bruschetta as broos-ketta by the end of term, which is not an over-ambitious request by any means, but we like her approach and enjoy the sociability. We’re even doing hand-gestures, which used just slightly off-script could get you into a whole lot of trouble.

Pani’s Café in Newcastle is deliberately a café because of its congeniality and easygoing nature. Its customers constantly come and go in groups, pairs or singly, whether for cappuccino in the morning or an evening of pollo piccante. It is, as they say, lively. Vivace. The place ripples with conversation and resounds with satisfaction and though many a restaurant ripples and resounds, they generally lean towards formality. Is there a better way of being taught a language than in an atmosphere buzzing and bustling with like-minded people eager to get past ‘ciao’ and ‘grazie’?

Pani’s was opened on Newcastle’s High Bridge in the mid-90s by brothers and sisters Walter, Roberto, Patrizia, Antonello, Christian and Paolo – a family brimming with continental style and bearing more than a hint of Geordie in their accents. Their food is a proclamation of Italian home cooking and its simplicity is a huge part of its charm. Food is their identity – food, fashion and coffee sums up what it is to be Italian. In Pani’s there’s no separating menu, décor and service. It’s a whole experience, one contributing to the other, seasoning each in the twist of a peppermill. The Pani’s boast is that it’s all things to all people. In one sweep it can be intimate and playing footsie, then it can be buoyant and boisterous; much like the different characters in a family. The tone is set by the staff – mostly young and all very eager – with what my mother-in-law would call “not a pickin’ on them”.

They glide energetically between tables like the most agile of dancers and this is obviously what keeps them fit. Our pushchair was no obstacle, either – the emphasis is very much on families dining together, even if one of them is still at the Cow & Gate stage.

Pani’s walls and ceilings are swept with waves of orange and beige paintwork. The dining areas, easily curtained off for Italian lessons, are huge; there are no straight lines, it’s all curves and arcs with even the lampshades and radiators styled in ‘organic’ fashion.

We’ve all started with fish soup (£3.95) which isn’t the normal lunch review way to do things – prawns, tiger prawns, tuna, peas, spring onion and tomato are livened by a spicy fish stock. A meal in itself, it’s a reminder of The Magic Porridge Pot in that no matter how much is spooned up, the bowl never seems to empty. Perfetto; we could have lingered over it all afternoon.

The lunchtime mains include Ciabatte numero cinque (£4.20), an unromantically named sandwich with chicken Milanese, tomatoes and salad served with mayonnaise or tomato salsa. It’s comfort-eating worth five out of five on anybody’s scorecard.

Crespelle con ricotta e spinaci (£6.10) is the lightest of crepes filled with ricotta cheese, spinach, mozzarella and just enough tomato to give it an edge. Like a lot of Italian standards, crespelle was once
considered peasant food, but the decadence of two cheeses further lathered with parmesan lifts it up the social scale into sheer indulgence.

And the contrast of flavour and texture in Lasagna al forno (£4.25) – the familiar layered pasta with bolognese, bechamel, nutmeg and tomato sauce topped with mozzarella cheese – has rarely tasted better.  We’d dallied so long over the fish soup, it’s time for the staff lunch. A half-dozen ‘agile dancers’ sit at the next table, enjoying their break almost as much as we are. It’s a neat philosophy – feeding the staff should be a big deal and if you can’t serve good food for your friends and family, how can you do it for strangers? I recognise the crespelle on one plate, and next time I’m going for the Bolognese I’ve just caught sight of. Bello.

But by taking our time over lunch we’ve dined the Italian way – every meal is a celebration. There’s no rushing about with a pasty on the hoof; lunch is a decidedly sit-down affair. I feel sure that if I pull a couple of chairs together and have a nap, none of the staff would take a blind bit of notice. Buona sera.

Pani’s other boast is that it’s a little bit of Italy in the middle of Newcastle. Nobody could disagree with that. It’s a lesson in giving customers a quality experience in every aspect of Italian café-restaurant life.

Now, say after me… bruschetta. Broos-ketta

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