Out to Lunch – Michelangelo

MichelangeloGreat fun and seriously good food sit well together at a Tyneside Italian restaurant, as Alastair Gilmour discovers

Italian restaurants have succeeded in this country better than those of any European nation because of their willingness to adapt to their locality. They also have a reputation – deservedly so – for being hugely cheerful establishments offering a wealth of flavours through varied and relatively inexpensive food.

Tradition, invention and no little ability on a stove also play a major part in their popularity. And has anybody come out of an Italian restaurant in a worse mood than they went in? No, never.

It’s not Funiculi Funicula on the sound system that gives us a rosy glow, either – or Dean Martin singing Volare – there’s just something utterly joyful about Italian food.

We’ve settled into Michelangelo’s in Ryton, Tyne & Wear, the primogenito (firstborn) of a trio of North East restaurants which make up this small chain – Prudhoe, Northumberland, and Dipton, Co Durham are the “youngsters” and their inspiration is via traditional family recipes and regular visits to Italy.

Appetite-michealangelos-15The conservatory dining room looks fun. Let’s call it a room for office get-togethers and family groups where That’s Amore will have customers swaying involuntarily within seconds.

And anyone who enjoys being around Italian restaurants will still adore those giant black pepper mills that waiters flourish – often the bigger the grinder the smaller the waiter – but it’s teatro, theatre on a plate.

Michelangelo’s other dining area is a little more formal in its touch of sophistication, suited to the more sedate occasion and heavy on the swags and tails which are functional – softening sharp edges in a room – and attractive. Still fun, though.

What both dining rooms are saying is that here is a restaurant that is accessible to all, very family orientated, unstuffy, and writing an entry in the dining-out diary with some very good, artistically presented food that represents value for money.

Now that’s a phrase that has gone through hoops and has a different meaning for different people. Does “value for money” mean cheap and cheerful? Is it top quality for not a lot? But we’re digressing into lunchtime semantics here.

Then it’s the old thing…a mushroom stroganoff hurries by, leaving an earthy, creamy rich aroma in its wake. Following that is a mixed seafood thermidor – a range of shellfish assembled under and alongside a cream and mustard veloute, topped with cheese catching the senses. Perhaps we should follow suit.

We’ve seen the menu and this is indeed value for money – and so is Etruscan six-hour, slow-roasted leg of lamb served with golden rosemary and garlic roasted potatoes. The specials board promises it’s so succulent it falls off the bone – and also that 24 hours notice is required.

At £45 it serves up to five (“It’ll do six easily,” says the passing waitress, guessing correctly by my finger action I’m dividing £45 by five). What time is it?

Appetite-michealangelos-7What we’re looking at on the menu is a range of rustic Mediterranean dishes; simple fare with a flash of brio. Our steak bruschetta is basically an open sandwich on toasted bread and what a fine starter – or even light meal – it makes too.

The grilled steak, bathed in olive oil and garlic, Tuscan style, is meltingly tender, particularly full-flavoured, and matched well with a ratatouille topping. This isn’t finger food but primitive urges are irresistible and what’s etiquette anyway?

Ratatouille – originally a French dish – always gave the impression of being an ancient peasant concoction and, like so many other components of Italian cuisine, it has developed out of simple Mediterranean cuisine.

The aroma from our seared seabass has been a sore, sore temptation since it was brought to the table, but we’ve been deep in conversation – more often than not increasingly rare lunchtimes away from a desk are subsumed in tittle-tattle and gossip and this one’s no different.

Sea bass is an ancient Roman dish, written about by naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder in the first century, so this is tradition, albeit adapted to modern-day Tyneside. This little stack is excellent too.

Adaptation can also have its drawbacks; the three house wines on the Michelangelo list are Spanish. Why, when Italy produces some of the best value-for-money wines available? But we’re still leaving with a smile. That’s amore.

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