Every morning, and every lunch time, Inspector Montalbano stumbles into the glare of the Sicilian sun and strolls along the cobbled streets leading to his favourite restaurant in the centre of Vigata. Sadly, the character, the town and the restaurant are fictional, but the eponymous Italian TV series currently showing on BBC Four has tapped into my life’s ambition: to have a restaurant I can visit every day.
What could be better than a familiar greeting, a regular table, and that feeling of being completely at home when presented with a menu? “I’ll go for whatever you think I’ll like, Salvatore,” I’d say, before happily chomping on a breadstick.
The requirements are simple: it has to be Italian, cheap, and employ a jazz pianist to tinkle on the ivories while I’m quaffing Chianti and scoffing spaghetti.
I may have found such a place, although I can’t guarantee it, I haven’t been there regularly enough. The first visit was a complete delight, and I’ve already made another reservation for dinner at Ciao Bella, a Bloomsbury institution just opposite Great Ormond Street Hospital.
The first sign that I’d like the place was the complimentary bowl of olives and cubed parmesan. It’s the little things that make a big difference.
Then came our starters: for me, a mozzarella, tomato and anchovy salad, and the garlic bread for my friend. Both were divine. The salad was fresh, clean and the perfect appetiser. Meanwhile, the garlic bread was flaky, thin and disappeared leaving the taste of garlic but without the glut of grease that lesser versions deposit. If garlic bread is on a spectrum, this was at the opposite end to the stodgy, buttered baguettes we’ve all eaten and wished we hadn’t.
Next up. I picked the seafood risotto, while my pal plumped for “spaghetti al cartoccio” – a mix of mussels, prawns, calamari and spaghetti all jumbled together in a paper bag so the juices enrich the rich tomato sauce. The risotto was buttery and creamy, with the delicate grains cared for and cooked to perfection. Similarly, the seafood spaghetti was wolfed down, with the wonderfully generous portions not slowing us down.
The whole meal was finished off with a strong espresso, which was suitably satisfying. In fact, I’m struggling to think of any negatives. The service was perfect – precise, attentive, but not too persistent. Perhaps they could have painted the walls a different colour. Yup, that’s all I’ve got.
Certainly, when a delicious meal for two comes to only £32.20, you know you’re on to a winner. I plan to visit as often as possible. After all, don’t they say that familiarity feeds contentment?