It all began on a cold and boring Sunday evening of last month, when my Russian friend Dan decided to cook spaghetti alla carbonara for me. Over the following few days, I realised that my flatmate from New York often makes pasta. Then I met a German classmate eating pizza in the Grainger Market. And all the Geordie people I know keep suggesting Italian restaurants to try.
I should probably make it clear that, as wise Italians do, when I’m far from my home country I tend to avoid anything that could remind me of it: people, food (except for the pasta, that I still eat almost every day), music… I do this for two reasons: first, because I really want to focus on the culture of the new place I am living in; and secondly – I know this could sound a little picky –, because I’ve always thought that any form of Italian culture outside of Italy can only be a pale imitation of what my country really is.
But after all those hints, I started looking around while walking in the city. I realised that one could actually learn a good chunk Italian vocabulary simply by reading the names of all the restaurants in Newcastle: uno, Pinocchio, livello, paradiso, fratello, mascalzone, gusto, avanti… Could they all be fake Italian restaurants? Obviously not.
Being unable to find official figures on Italian eateries in Newcastle, I have to trust Tripadvisor, which lists 102 of them. This is not hard to believe, since just the city centre contains many Italian or “Italian style” restaurants, including big chains like Jamie’s Italian or Carluccio’s.
A must-try one, without a doubt, is the family-run Pani’s Café, “a little piece of Italy in the heart of a beautiful city”, as their website states. In addition to the typical and most well-known Italian dishes, it serves up Sardinian specialties such as malloreddus cun sartizzu (pasta with Italian sausage, tomato and pecorino cheese) and fregola cun cocciua (round pasta with clams and tuna roe), two of the customers’ favourites. Coming from a half Sardinian family, I am already getting hungry as soon as Roberto Pani, one of the restaurant’s owners, starts to mention all those delicious foods that remind me of my childhood. While I drink a real Italian espresso (finally!), he tells me his story. He was only 20 years old when he came to Newcastle, twenty-five years ago. “I was already working in Italy, I didn’t really want to come here. I didn’t speak any English and I wasn’t interested in this kind of job. I had other plans”. But three of his brothers were already living in Newcastle and one of them (his current business partner) really wanted him to give it a go. “He told me: ‘come here, I’ll pay for your ticket, if you don’t like it you can go’. So I came and I started working in an Italian restaurant. Back then there were some of them already, but not nearly as many as there are now. I started from scratch, after two years I was the manager, and three years later we found this little place here, that used to be a clothes shop”. The two brothers didn’t have any money or entrepreneurial experience when they opened Pani’s café in 1995, but they got some help from the friends they had made during the previous five years. “We were very determined, and lucky too: right time, right place”. So their business started growing from the very beginning. And so did the restaurant: “at first it was tiny, there was only that part there”, Roberto says smiling and pointing at a very small room. They started opening even at night and gradually expanded the menu, gaining customers’ trust by teaching them to appreciate real Italian cuisine. “The two most important things for us are the efficiency of the service and the quality of the products. Once you can do that, you have won 90% of the battle. We try to offer good dishes, made as they should be”. And their products are indeed very fresh and high quality: they get Italian foods from the best suppliers, and their chefs know how to prepare beautiful Italian and Sardinian dishes with them. “Two of my chefs are Italian, and two of them are Mackems, but they have been working with me for several years, so they’ve learned how real Italians cook”, specifies Roberto. Often mentioned in national newspapers (recently by The Sunday Times) and online reviews, Pani’s café is a definite visit worth having in the panorama of Newcastle’s Italian restaurants.
Sabatini has a big and elegant interior and also a cosy private room that can be hired for parties, conferences and meetings. Four Italian chefs and an English one use the best ingredients to prepare beautiful creations such as tagliatelle carbonara, seafood spaghetti, many kinds of pizzas, meat and fish dishes, Sardinian specialties like fregola agli asparagi e ricotta (round pasta with asparagus and salty ricotta cheese) and roast suckling pig, which is the pride of the restaurant: it must be ordered with at least 48 hours’ notice and it can feed up to fourteen people.
Sabatini also offers takeaway option, a lunch time menu with two courses starting at £11.95 and discounted pastas and pizzas every day during happy hour.
Grainger Market offers the opportunity to try two of the most typical Italian foods: gelato (ice cream) and pizza. Mark Toney, in the Grainger Arcade, has been running since 1902, when the Italian immigrant Antonio Marcantonio left his village near Rome and came to Newcastle to seek his fortune. It is possible to read more about that fascinating story on the company’s website. The business is still run by the Marcantonio family, and their homemade, award winning ice creams and sorbets are well worth a visit.