“ Address: 3 French Row / St. Albans AL3 5DU / Hertfordhsire / Tel: 01727 860609 „
L'Italiana is one of my favourite local restaurants; small and intimate, excellent Italian food which is really well-priced, and located in the historic heart of St Albans. I have always had a warm welcome and been entertained by the staff in a variety of ways. The only downside is that its popularity means that it is exceptionally hard to get a table on many nights of the week.
L'Italiana is located in one of the oldest parts of St Albans, just opposite the medieval clock tower, it is in the very centre of town. The building is part of French Row, also known as Cobblers Row due to the trade that was plied there when it was built in the mid 1300s.
The restaurant has managed to keep a lot of the features and atmosphere of a very old building, with the original Jacobean panelling, the original heavy wooden beams and tiny rooms. From the outside it is difficult to imagine they way that the building used to look, as a modern glass frontage has replaced the original small windows. This new frontage however, is a great advantage to the restaurant as it contains large wooden screen windows that can be opened out in summer for a breeze and to connect it to the several small tables that sit outside in the pedestrian area of the market place.
Inside, the restaurant is fairly tiny and split into two levels; the lower level containing the modern glass restaurant frontage and having a more modern feel with the counter for coffee and drinks - the upper being small and intimate with beams, and white plaster.
In both upper and lower levels the vibrant atmosphere of a simple Italian restaurant has been carefully recreated, from the bare wooden tables and 1960s booth style bench seating, to the loud music and exuberant singing Italian waiters. The restaurant is almost invariably packed and the feel is friendly and informal, with friends and locals coming in after food serving is finished to have a quick drink.
The menu at L'italiana is strong on traditional Italian dishes of pasta, pizza and risotto. The pasta is fresh and very authentic, much more al dente than the chain restaurant pasta that we have got used to eating. The pasta also comes in a gluten free variety, which is unusual and very useful for Coeliac sufferers or others with a allergies.
I have eaten there so many times that it is difficult to pick a favourite dish. The starters are always exceptional, and I have particularly enjoyed Funghi Ripieni - one giant mushroom stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella and swimming in a rich Napoli sauce. Lovely! This particular starter costs £6.45 - and for the same price you can get a more traditional but beautifully presented Avocado con Gamberetti - a huge mound of fresh prawns on a lovely bed of lettuce and sliced avocado, topped off with freshly made Marie Rose sauce. The whole dish is fluffy and fresh - not a hint of brown or droopy in the room!
For main courses I usually prefer to choose pasta. My favourite is the extremely rich Penne Salmone - which usually leaves me groaning after being tempted to eat the whole huge portion. The penne is al dente, and the salmon is shredded into tiny pieces but is very plentiful. This costs £8.95. A delicious vegetarian option is a little cheaper at £7.95; Penne Rosa d'Amore consists of cherry tomatoes, mozzarella and pine nuts and is topped with a flavoursome Napoli sauce. Choosing between these two delicious dishes always takes some thought.
Prices of pasta and pizza range from £7 to £9, but for those wanting to spend a little more, there are fish, steak and chicken dishes from £14 to £20. I rarely choose the more expensive options, although I have seen friend eat Filletto al Pepe Verde (fillet steak in a creamy brandy and peppercorn sauce) - and it looks equally delicious.
Occasionally I am tempted to have a pizza and have always enjoyed every mouthful. I have to mention the Calzone in particular. I'm sure everbody knows that a Calzone is a rolled pizza with the pizza ingredients sealed inside the folded pizza dough - but in L'Italiana the arrival of a Calzone is often a big event. The huge Calzone rises from the plate like a small mountain, and attracts stares from all customers is it is carried down the restaurant to the customer - it looks too big to eat and the chef often comes out of the kitchen to laugh at the expression of amazement on the customer's face, shouting out "You lika my Calzone, yes?". Despite it gargantuan proportions, the Calzone is only £8.95.
All deserts are £4.45, but I rarely can squeeze anything other than a coffee in. If I find the strength for a third course, I always choose either the home made Tiramasu or the home made Crème Brulee - both of which are beautiful.
The wines have always been good - I usually order either a Pinot Grigio or an Orvieto , both at £15.45 which I think is good value. A range of Italian beers are available at £3.45. Nothing in L'Italiana is over-priced and the value for money is consistently excellent.
Since opening, L'Italian has been a huge hit, its reputation spreading far outside the local area. I have never known it to be empty and usually I have to book weeks in advance. My most recent attempt to book a table for a Saturday night was met with laughter - they were fully booked for the next 6 weeks ! It pays to be well planned for a weekend visit.
L'Italiana won Restaurant of the Year in both 2009 and 2010 - will it win in 2011? I suspect that it will as, at the end of my last visit, the waiter gave all customers the voting slip to fill in with a saucy smile - saying "if you enjoyed your meal, please vote for us". He then collected all the slips in to send off. Although this is not really cheating, and I was more than happy to vote - I can see how this would affect the results just a little ....
Although the service is usually excellent and the extravert staff make the atmosphere wonderful, this has annoyed us on occasion. We decided to eat on a Sunday, when the staff were more relaxed and the restaurant was quieter - they were so relaxed that the chatter and the dancing made them forget their customers and we were sitting there ignored and getting quite cross. I have to say that this was just one occasion out of very many - and I quickly forgave them and returned another day.
The restaurant is completely unsuitable for anybody with mobility issues. There is one male and one female toilet, but both of these involve walking up two steps to the upper restaurant, and then down another step to the toilets.
The female toilet is large and very clean and modern. It has a baby changing unit on the wall.
L'Italiana is right in the city centre of St Albans, half a mile from the train station, local buses will stop a few yards away in St Peter's Street.
The full menu is available on their website: www.litaliana.co.uk
3 French Row St Albans, Hertfordshire AL3 5DU
Tel: 01727 860 609