Every holiday, my very good friend Dylan and I go on a little ‘dinner date’ to a restaurant in Cardiff, about 20 minutes away from our home town. We go to catch up, not-so-subtly judge restaurant grade food, and get ideas for our own culinary creations at home. It’s lovely to get dressed up for a real ‘occasion’ dinner, but let me save you some time, Carluccio’s is hardly worth the effort.
Last time we tried Jamie’s Italian, another chain restaurant, and bypassed Carluccio’s because of some unfortunate reviews on trip advisor. Having already experienced Jamie’s finest, I boldly said ‘I’ll be the judge of that’ when Dylan protested the food at Carluccio’s might not be up to scratch.
In theory, Carluccio’s has all the constituent parts of a successful eatery (1.) it’s attractive; the displays of filled oil bottles, cakes, house pastas and raspberry swirled meringues definitely draw the eye in, as do the cosy booths and innovative decor. (2.) the staff are friendly – our waitress was really helpful and kind, especially when we had to complain (but more on that later), and (3.) the menu is extensive and impressive. Definitely a better selection than the aforementioned Jamie’s.
While I went for the ‘penne giardiniera’, an unpronounceable concoction of ‘our own Pugliese penne with courgette, chilli and fried spinach balls with Italian cheese and garlic’, Dylan played it safe with a simple lasagne. They say the best way to judge a restaurant on its authenticity is to order a classic dish and see how well they do. Safe to say that Dylan was not impressed. It was ‘fine’ he said, but nothing special. That said, we weren’t paying top dollar prices for these meals, so you can only expect so much. We probably got what we paid for. My main was delicious, slightly more adventurous and a pleasure to eat. I’ll definitely be trying that at home soon. We also shared a side of vegetable ‘frittas’ – tempura fried aubergines, courgettes and peppers. These were kind of like chips, in thick strips, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. While they were very interesting and tasty, they were very heavily salted, too much so for me. Still, I wasn’t going to waste them.
Dessert was a difficult choice, with so many appetising puddings on offer. In the end we both went for tarts, me a strawberry and mascarpone, and Dylan a chocolate and raspberry, the special for that day, and were served with a nice vanilla bean ice cream. We’d both like to consider ourselves as slight ‘foodies’ (the majority of dinner conversation was spent on how to get authentic Italian just right), but I’d say that desserts are a strong point for both of us. This is why we felt a little let down by our second courses. When you deconstruct them, tarts like this are relatively simple to make, hard to do well, and easy to get wrong. The pastry was bland and seemed to have been bought in, or not fresh at least. The mascarpone filling was good on mine, but Dylan wasn’t so lucky. He pushed his plate over to me midway through his pudding and pointed to a raspberry cut in half. ‘I think it’s mouldy’. One look was conclusive. It was. Like, properly blue and spore-y. Not what you’d hope to be served in a reputable restaurant. Dylan finished three quarters of it and left a few spoonfuls and the offending raspberry before googling the possible repercussions of eating such less-than-fresh fruit. I said he’d be fine, that I’d seen people in my Uni flat eat worse...
When the waitress came to collect our plates we quietly and apologetically pointed out what had happened and the dish was swiftly taken off the bill. The manager assured us this was extremely rare and that produce is quality controlled on a daily basis. The great service we received almost made up for the whole incident.
Overall, I’d say that Carluccio’s is a fine place to visit, nice for a lunch time meal or casual dinner with friends, and I’m sure that the Deli section is brilliant (I only got a very quick look on my way out). Open from 8am it’d be an ideal place to pop in and pick up a couple of special ingredients for an important dinner, or just a nice treat to have at home, but dinner-wise, you could probably do better in a few restaurants just across the street. Yes, you’d be paying slightly more, but in my opinion it would be totally worth your while. Decor and staff are great, but the food leaves something to be desired. Offering a wide variety but of varying standard, I won’t be in a huge hurry to return to Carluccio’s, but I wouldn’t flatly refuse. 3/5 stars at best.