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Minimum Fuss, Maximum Flavour? Well sort of....
Member Name: bollinger28
Date: 19/05/12, updated on 04/07/13 (223 review reads)
Advantages: Great coffee. Nice desserts. Discount voucher applied to final bill.
Disadvantages: Food pretty average. Staff lost interest towards the end of the evening.
Carluccio's opened their 61st outlet in Chichester in September last year. We were due to dine there in October, but we had to cancel as I had a stinking migraine. We finally got around to rebooking our long overdue meal there at the end of January. For those who have never heard of the chain, Carluccio's is a range of Italian style "caffès" that were originally developed ten or so years ago by Antonio Carluccio and his wife Priscilla. Since their initial enthusiasm, Signor and Signora Carluccio have divorced, fallen out, and Antonio has taken more of a backseat with regard to the chain. Carluccio's still bears his name (obviously), but he has sold most of it off and now only acts only as "consultant".
You might recognise Antonio's white hair, grizzled persona and grumpy manner from the TV show "Two Greedy Italians", which he co-presents with his old friend and colleague Gennaro Contaldo. Having been quite entertained by his antics on TV where he cooked and grumbled his way around Italy, we were quite keen to try his restaurant. Added to which, we'd downloaded the menu from their website (www.carluccios.com), and it all sounded quite simply delicious. Both of us were hard pressed to pinpoint which dishes we wanted as they all sounded so mouth-watering. I can normally read a menu in seconds and know what I'm going to have, but with the Carluccio's menu, I kept changing my mind.
~*~ LOCATION AND INTERIOR ~*~
Carluccio's is located in a brand new, freshly developed "plaza" at the bottom of East Street in Chichester, West Sussex. It faces out into both East Street and the newly built Eastgate Square, and it's nestled next door to another celebrity chef outlet - Raymond Blanc's Brasserie Blanc. There is no parking to be had outside Carluccio's (or Brasserie Blanc) so diners need to leave their vehicles in a nearby pay and display car park, either the big one in Market Avenue or the smaller one at New Park Road (lunchers will have to pay, but they're both free to park in after 6pm). Carluccio's is located inside a brand, spanking new building with huge picture windows to the front and side. It's quite a large restaurant, and it's nicely fitted out, with lots of tables for parties of any size. There's banquette seating to two sides of the room, and some comfy booths for larger parties just in front of the open-plan kitchen area. The bar area is massive, and as with most Carluccio's outlets, there is shop-delicatessen-cum-foodie-area where you can buy all sorts of Italian delicacies - pasta, coffee, herbs/spices, biscuits and sauces as well as over-priced wines from Antonio's private vineyard.
The décor in Carluccio's is very light and bright - lots of pale wooden floors, chairs and tables. I was worried it was going to be rather canteen-like once inside, all echoey and vast, but it certainly wasn't. It has a nice welcoming and warm ambiance, and the tables are nicely spaced and as private as you'd like them to be. One of the walls is decorated with huge pictures of Italian scenery and dishes, and it adds a nice vista to the place. Large picture windows give you a view right across to Brasserie Blanc. Outside is a good sized seating area underneath a jaunty blue awning - a lovely spot for a summer lunch or dinner if you enjoy watching the world go by, but totally out of the question in chilly January. It was a Sunday evening when we dined there, and the restaurant was rather empty - I'd say less than 20% full. The welcome we received was friendly and due to the quietness of the evening we were asked where we'd like to sit. We suggested one of the curved booths for four thinking we'd receive a negative response as our party was only two. Amazingly, the waiter didn't seem to think it would be a problem and we made ourselves at home in our nice curved and comfy booth.
The tables were all decorated with tiny flickering tea lights, which made the place look really pretty. The atmosphere was slightly marred by the god-awful music wailing its way out of the restaurant speakers. This was the second time in a month I'd had my ear drums assaulted by restaurant speakers, but I'd have listed to the 70's themed ersatz in Las Iguanas any day of the week over the terrible Italian accented jazz that emanated from the bowels of Carluccio's - it was dreadful. One thing missing from the table are salt and pepper pots. The waiter asked us if we wanted black pepper with each course and then ground it for us. However, we couldn't spot any salt for ages. We then noticed a small saucer on each table with granules of sea salt in them. I would imagine that this is terribly unhygienic, unless of course they provide a new saucer every time someone takes up a table. This certainly didn't happen when we moved into our dining booth, and who knows who'd previously dipped their fingers into the salt saucer left on our table...or what they been doing with that finger beforehand!
~*~ THE MENU AT CARLUCCIO'S ~*~
Carluccio's offer traditional Italian dishes, with the notable exception of no pizzas. There is a good range of antipasti, pasta, salads and risottos on offer, but not a pizza in sight. This certainly isn't a problem for me as I tend to think pizza is one of the most over-rated food stuffs of the 20th century. However, if you like your Thin 'n Crispy, your Calzone, or your Baked Crust you'll be in the wrong place if you choose to dine at Carluccio's, and you'll do better heading off to Prezzo, Zizzi, Ask, Pizza Express or Pizza Hut.
You can kick things off with Stuzzichini (small Italian plates - a bit like Spanish Tapas) at Carluccio's or got straight for Primi or Antipasti (starters). Stuzzichini consist of things like olives or bread - be in garlic or Focaccia, with prices ranging from £1.95 up to £4.95. They're designed to nibble on whilst you peruse the menu. The starters on offer at Carluccio's are Italian favourites like Zuppe (soup), Bruschetta, Prosciutto and Mozzarella dishes. You can also share Antipasti platters of cold meats, breads and olives. Primi range in price from £4.95 up to £6.75 with the sharing Anitpasti platters ranging from £11.95 up to £18.95.
Providing you're not a pizza affectionado, you'll find more than enough to tempt even the most jaded palate on the Secondi (main courses) section. You can choose from a range of Insalate (salads) at around the £7 to £8 mark. Pasta dishes are plentiful and innovative with thirteen different choices from Linguine, Fettucce, Lasagna, Tortellini, Spaghetti, Ravioli, Rigatoni or Gnocchi based dishes. Can't make up your mind on your favourite pasta dish? Carluccio's offer a Trio di Pasta option where two people can share three different pasta dishes from £18.95. There are a great range of meat and fish dishes too from Osso Bucco (shin of veal), Branzino (sea bass) or Bistecca (steak) as well as daily blackboard specials. Main course prices tend to range between the £11 to £16 mark, with pasta coming in at slightly less being around the £8 to £11 level. The dessert selection is of course dominated largely by old Italian favourites such as Torta di Limone, Tiramisu, Panna Cotta, Gelato and Sorbetti (ice-creams). Dessert prices range from £4.00 to around £6.00 each.
~*~ OUR MEAL ~*~
We were offered a choice Stuzzichini dishes of either olives or garlic bread when we were seated to go with our drinks order, but we decided to have hold out for starters instead.
My partner was tempted by Calamari Fritti (squid rings), but as he was going to have seafood for his main course, he did a swift about turn and chose the Zuppo di Fughi con Pancetta (£4.95), described as a rich soup of mushrooms, Italian bacon and fresh Focaccia bread. Antonio Carluccio is famous for his mushroom recipes, so we thought any mushroom soup he puts his name to has got to be good. Sadly it tasted more like packet soup rather than anything conjured up by hand or with a good stock in the kitchen. You can taste homemade soup a mile off, and this was anything but - it had a slightly salty and powdery taste to it. To be fair it had a more than generous portion of mushrooms in the liquid, but they couldn't disguise the fact this wasn't a freshly made soup conjured from stock. As for the Pancetta - there was no sign at all - perhaps it had been liquidised? The Focaccia bread was nothing special at all despite their claim that they make it fresh by hand every morning. I'd have expected it to be a lot tastier and definitely more flavoursome than it was.
I chose Tortino di Tonno (£5.25) which is homemade tuna and caper fishcake with garlic mayonnaise and salad leaves. Sadly, once again, this was nothing special at all. It was a patty of tuna and potato coated in some tasteless bread crumbs. I could definitely taste a hint of tuna, but the capers appeared to be hiding. On the plus side, the green salad was fresh and tasty and had a very moreish balsamic vinegar dressing on it. The garlic mayonnaise was pretty good too...but not good enough to make up for the lack of flavour in the fishcake. It didn't look all that appetising either - just plain bland breadcrumbs. If we make fishcakes at home we add a good handful of herbs like parsley, coriander or tarragon to the bread crumbs to make the mix not only tastier, but give it more eye-appeal. Perhaps they need to have a rethink on the breadcrumb front at Carluccio's.
For his main course, my partner chose Fritto Misto (£12.95) which was calamari, whitebait, prawns and sea bass tossed in seasoned flour and lightly fried. This was served with garlic mayonnaise, but nothing else at all. I think a green salad would have been a good side for this dish as the mound of seafood was generous, but it needed something to cleanse the palate between nibbling on different pieces of fish or seafood. We were also amazed that the dish was served without a wedge of lemon. A squeeze of lemon always brings out the flavour of fish and seafood and it was most remiss of them not to provide one. Luckily I'd been served a wedge of lemon with my chicken (which wasn't entirely necessary), so I passed it over to himself. All in all the dish was tasty enough, but there wasn't really enough of it to qualify as a main course portion wise, and it definitely lacked some kind of inclusive side dish.
I went for Milanese di Pollo (£10.95) which is a traditional Italian chicken dish where the breast meat is flattened, covered in breadcrumbs and shallow-fried. This was served with a green salad. I also chose a side dish of Patate (rosemary potatoes) at an extra cost of £3.00. The chicken was nicely presented and a good generous portion. Unfortunately, it was rather bland and tasteless. I was hoping the breadcrumbs would have more life to them than the ones in my starter did, but sadly they didn't. It was a perfectly presentable dish - just lacking any depth of flavour. The green salad was tasty and drizzled with some more of the balsamic vinegar dressing I enjoyed with my tuna fishcake. The rosemary potatoes were the worst disappointment of all. I was expected some flavoursome pan fried slices with a hint of rosemary. Instead I ended up with a bowl of greasy cubed potato without a hint of any herb at all, let alone rosemary.
We don't usually linger and have desserts when we eat out, but on this occasion we pushed the boat out and had not just desserts but coffee too. I went for Meringa con Panna al Frutto della Passione (£4.95), which was raspberry meringue with a passion fruit cream and fresh summer fruit. The dessert was served in a glass and was basically Eton Mess Italiano style. No matter - it was delicious and the nicest thing I ate all night. The meringue was nicely crunchy to the edge yet gooey in the middle, and the passion fruit cream wonderful. I followed this up with a superb cup of Caffè Latte (£2.25), and it really was a lovely cup of coffee. I don't often drink coffee as I love the smell but find the flavour often disappoints. No such disappointment here - the taste more than matched the aroma. I shall definitely return to Carluccio's for their coffee if nothing else!
Himself partook of a portion of Tiramisu (£4.95) which is one of his favourite desserts. The Carluccio's version is made from Savoiardi biscuits soaked in espresso coffee and coffee liqueur with mascarpone and chocolate. He enjoyed it, but said it wasn't the best of Tiramisu he'd ever eaten as it lacked freshness and creaminess. He rounded things off with a Bicerin (£2.80), as he thought the description sounded interested. A Bicerin is evidently a traditional drink from Torino which consists of three jugs on a tray - one of espresso coffee, one of Florentine drinking chocolate and the third one of cream. The idea is to mix the cream, coffee and chocolate into the perfect beverage. Unfortunately the staff had only served the coffee hot, and by the time he added in cold cream and luke-warm hot chocolate, the resulting beverage was somewhat tepid. A nice idea, but I think serving hot coffee, chocolate and warmed milk/cream would work better.
~*~ DRINKS & SERVICE ~*~
As with the menu, drinks at Carluccio's are of an Italian theme. In fact, all the wines are Italian, and no other countries are represented. You can choose from Frascati, Pinot Grigio, Valpolicella or Chianti to name but a few, with price starting from £4 per glass or £13.95 per bottle. Beers-wise they offer draught Peroni at £3.60 a pint (served in a wonderfully tall and thin glass), but that's about it. Mind you, having draught lager is much more preferable than having to drink the over-priced bottled beers that you find in Zizzi, Prezzo et al. If you fancy drinking Italian as well as eating Italian you can partake of a Campari, a Bellini or a Limoncello - all priced around the £5 mark.
The service was attentive and friendly enough at the beginning of the meal, although the waiter did insist on addressing us as "guys" every time he spoke to us. Towards the end of the meal, the staff were keener on closing up and clearing down than they were in seeing if we wanted desserts or coffee. We watched them move all the outdoor furniture indoors and wind down the outside awning before they got back to us about whether desserts were required. Our welcome was good, the serving of the starters and main courses timely and prompt, but the staff then let themselves down by virtually ignoring us after that point. We got fed up waiting for anyone to clear away our coffee and dessert plates, and there was no one around to ask for the bill. In the end we went up to the till to pay as that was the only way we were going to get out of there quickly.
Whilst we were waiting for some kind of normal service to resume, we both checked out the toilets and compared notes. The toilets involve a walk down a long corridor and it was an icy cold corridor. The toilets weren't much warmer and they certainly didn't smell too fragrant. Both toilet roll holders in the ladies displayed empty cardboard tubes - not good. Luckily there were some spare rolls beside the toilet. Evidently the gents was better than the ladies, but even so - they obviously hadn't been checked recently by any member of staff. On the plus side, I must mention the hand dryers in the loos - they were turbo-charged and quite the most quick and powerful hand driers I'd ever come across before.
The bill came to £62.00 which isn't such bad value for two three-course dinners, three drinks and two coffees. However, we were in possession of a discount voucher from one of the voucher sites which entitled us to "Two Main Courses for the Price of One", and once they'd applied this, the bill was bought down to a more reasonable £51.00.
~*~ RECOMMENDED? ~*~
Carluccio's slogan is "Minimum Fuss, Maximum Flavour", but I think they really need to work on living up to this claim at the Chichester branch. "Minimum Fuss" could apply equally to the fact that the food on the menu is quite plain and simple, or to the indifferent service we received. However, "Maximum Flavour" really couldn't be applied to the dishes we tried - excluding my wonderful coffee and scrumptious dessert. On the whole the food was fair to middling, mostly lacking in flare and flavour, and really nothing special at all. To be frank we were rather disappointed, as we were expecting better things from a menu that Antonio Carluccio had put his name to. The menu descriptions are tempting and they promise a lot; unfortunately they just don't deliver. Just like with Zizzi and Prezzo, Carluccio's is basically generic high street cooking with an Italian theme, and it's really not at all special. To be fair to Carluccio's the pasta dishes we spotted all looked delicious and very plentiful, so perhaps we should have stuck to one of those instead of choosing the dishes we did.
Carluccio's gets three stars from me; nice enough food, fairly reasonable portions, but really nothing special at all. Antonio rather needs to up his "consulting" with this chain, or disassociate himself entirely, as it seems to be letting him down.
~*~ THE SMALL PRINT ~*~
Carluccio's is a UK wide chain and there are around 60 outlets - the majority of them in London.
* Open seven days a week - Monday to Friday = 8am - 11pm, Saturday = 9am - 11pm and Sunday = 9am - 10.30pm
* The restaurant has no private parking, but there are two pay and display car parks nearby - one in Market Avenue and another smaller one off New Park Road (NB: parking charges do not apply after 6pm)
* All the major credit cards are accepted
* Good access for the disabled or infirm with a specially designated disabled toilet
* The website displays the full menu, a restaurant search facility, and an online reservation system (which we didn't try)
* Dress code is relaxed and informal
* Children are most welcome at Carluccio's (I spotted several high chairs) with a special menu at £6.50 inclusive of drink, breadsticks, main course and an ice-cream pudding
Review summaryfor the review "Minimum Fuss, Maximum Flavour? Well sort of...."
Summary: High street Italian eaterie initially founded by Antonio Carluccio