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Warm welcome to another italian...
CHAIN restaurants are not usually popular choices for restaurant reviews, as they can be seen as a bit staid and sterile places where everyone has to follow a corporate mantra.
Food writers tend to prefer visiting individually-owned eateries where the personality of the owner, or chef, is allowed to shine.
Zizzi boasts more than 100 restaurants across the country but, interestingly, its website says: “Each one’s a bit different in character, architecture, age and feel; think Robert De Niro with a regional accent.”
Sounds promising. I couldn’t wait to see the man who played a young Vito Corleone in Godfather II doing County Durham pitmatic.
Tucked away on Saddler Street, halfway up and on the left, it has a lot of competition from other Italian restaurants in the centre. In this part of town, people are particularly spoiled if they fancy a pizza or pasta dish before a night out in the city.
Off the cobbled streets, inside it is deceptively roomy, with high ceilings and coolcoloured decor adorned with illustrations by Lizzie Mary-Cullen who has paid homage to the beautiful cathedral up the street.
The restaurant has space for about 170 diners and downstairs offers views of the River Wear where rowing teams could be seen practising on the water.
We were greeted by our friendly waitress, who showed us to our table and informed us it was not so busy now that the students had gone home.
The restaurant opened two months ago and has enjoyed a good start with young people celebrating the end of their exams, or getting their parents to treat them to a good meal when coming to collect them from their digs.
A friend and I decided to start with a bowl of mixed olives (£2.55) and an Italian bread board (£3.95), which consisted of a fantastic selection, including garlic bread and bread sticks with balsamic vinegar and olive oils for dipping.
We then split a platter called Antipasto Zizzi, which is marketed as A Tour of Italy to Share, and offers prosciutto, salami Romana, coppa, Speck, sunblush tomatoes, olives and buffalo mozzarella for £10.55.
To drink, I had a refreshing Grecanico Chardonnay, from Sicily, which was £4.45 for a 175ml glass, and perfectly serviceable.
My mate had a Peroni Nastro Azzurro, which is a bit eye-watering at £6.10 for a 660ml bottle, no matter how good it tastes.
For my main, I went for the Agnello Con Pepperonata, which was roasted lamb shank served with basil, roasted vegetables and a little pot of potatoes with tomato, red onion and Grana Padano.
It was marvellous, the lamb perfectly cooked and so tender it fell off the bone and tasted wonderful. The veg was also well cooked and bursting with flavour.
My friend enjoyed his Rustica margherita pizza, which was made with the classic ingredients of tomato, mozzarella, olive oil, basil.
It would normally have been £6.90, but he customised it a bit with rocket and proscuitto, bumping the total to £10.90.
The pizza base was stretched into a rough oval shape and looked enormous.
His view was that it tasted fine, but would have benefited from more cheese, and mused whether world cheese prices were leading to restaurants skimping on the yellow stuff to maintain profit margins.
To round off our meals I opted for the creamy vanilla pannacotta with fruit compote (£5.10) while my guest went for the mascarpone and amaretto flavoured cheesecake with a fruit compote and fresh mint (£4.95).
All in all, we had no complaints.
The food was of a very high standard and served promptly by a friendly and efficient waitress.
In return for filling in a short online survey about your experience the company sends you a voucher code, which entitles you to a free dessert with your next meal.
So I take back what I said about chain restaurants and welcome another Italian gang to Durham.
They are making an offer you can’t refuse.