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Two weeks ago, on an unremarkable grey Saturday morning, I was attempting to delete the stack of junk mail that builds up in my inbox. Surprisingly, a terrible accident had befallen some people with a similar name to mine in Nigeria. This happens almost weekly and I am lucky enough to be contacted by their solicitor who has all the paperwork to claim my inheritance if I could only give him my details
.I had been offered a loan at an amazing rate, to be received within 24 hours
If I had 25 minutes to spare, I could fill in an online questionnaire which would buy me an entry into a prize draw.
Well, how lucky that all this money had turned up at such an opportune moment, because in amongst the junk was an invitation from my good friend Mr D. Having finally passed his exams to get into the Police Force, he wanted us all to go out for dinner and drinks. I have spent a good few weekends stuck indoors, in front of the telly trying to save money and last night proved once and for all that the best way to spend Friday night is with friends, a bottle of wine and the best Italian food in town.
Mr D, Best Friend and I are friends from school. We gained another friend, Mrs A, at college and she and Mr D went to University together. Mr D and I hadnt seen each other in a while, not the since the Christmas / New Year dinner we had at Wagamama. We live close by, but busy working schedules and life in general have got in the way. Best Friend now lives in Hackney and Mrs A is married and living a fair distance from all of us. What better opportunity than this to meet up?
When Mr D asked for recommendations, I suggested Ninos straight away. We are not a quiet group, nor are we easy to please. The restaurant we needed would have to be cheap, with a varied menu, background noise and a licence to serve alcohol. The location would have to be central for the taxi rank, the bus stop, the parking at The Oracle (shopping centre) and drop off points for those who could get a lift.
Ninos is situated in the Market Place. This hasnt housed the Market since medieval times and is little more than a square block of banks and sandwich shops to the side of St Laurences church. The roads on either side of the square are not pedestrianised be careful and the centre houses Readings only public toilets, which have been closed since 1985. Tucked away at the back, behind some trees, is the faded green front of Ninos.
From the outside you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a quiet restaurant with little business. Once youre through the door and behind the steamy windows its a different matter. One room, divided by an archway and a window, is filled with wooden chairs and tables nestled snugly together. The candles glimmer on the crisp white tablecloths and staff rush busily around the restaurant with huge plates of sizzling food. Every time Ive been there, its been full. Every table packed with groups laughing and eating, the noise of conversation and chinking glass, the queue of good natured customers waiting for a table.
The Boyfriend and I were on time for once and met up with Mr D and Best Friend (straight off the train) in a nearby bar. Knowing the soaring temperature in Ninos, Id opted for a pair of leggings and a denim mini skirt with suede boots. The plan was that I could always take off the leggings and just wear the skirt if need be. Best Friend had come straight from work in a fantastic up-to-the-minute wrap dress and grey pixie boots. We made a swift exit as Mr D had the table booked for 8.30 and were all acutely aware that at Ninos time waits for no man. They will hold the table for maybe 5 minutes, but with a clamouring queue and busy restaurant its easily dispatched.
Ninos has been open for 26 years and Dad tells me that my parents ate in there when I was a baby. I went to parties there as a child in the 80s and The Boyfriend and I still love to stop by for dinner. Staff are friendly and Nino himself serves and clears up.
On entering, we were guided through the maze of tables to our seats. Coats were taken, menus laid out and drinks ordered in a matter of seconds. I was excited to see Best Friend and in all the hustle and bustle neglected to stop The Boyfriend ordering himself a beer. A couple of bottles of wine were opened and the four of us began to chatter. Within 10 minutes, Nino was over to ascertain the whereabouts of the rest of the party.
Nino is Readings restaurateur - starting off as a washer up, he made good with a total of 4 restaurants at the peak of his empire. Local people often refer to it as Ninos Quattro but are hard pushed to say where the four were. Well, heres a bit of local knowledge: there was this one, in the market place; the big one, Ninos 2 in Church St, Caversham (now Le Shanghai); the wine bar in Duke Street; Ninos 4 in Prospect St Caversham which Nino sold to his manager and which is now called Quattro.
Nino concentrates on just the one restaurant these days and its well worth it.
The staff and the queue of potential diners continued to eye the remaining seats until Mrs A and her husband Mr A arrived. As always, Mrs A effortlessly carried off a classic black outfit which would make anyone else look like an undertaker or a hairdresser on her its just glamorous. There were hugs and no hugs (I couldnt reach over the table), talk of their struggle to find the restaurant and the waitress trying to get a word in edgeways to take their drinks order.
The Boyfriend had vigorously defended their seats and emboldened by the drink (which had also made him louder) seized upon Mr A for a conversation about their shared love of agricultural machinery. Mr D and Mrs A were chattering ten to the dozen and Best Friend and I were taking bets on whether anyone would possibly shut up.
Then all of a sudden everyone did .to the sound of cheering, Mr Ds friend Girl-with-great-hair appeared, marching through the restaurant in a cocktail dress, with a penguin. This spectacular inflatable gift caught the eye (and occasionally the head) of everyone, not least because it was about four feet high. The people at the table behind began to shout Happy Birthday and Mr D turned to protest Its not my birthday, Im .(and here he hesitated just a little), joining the police force. He got a more subdued well done from them and returned to the table to admire his penguin which was sat at the head.
With all of us there, including Pierre the Penguin, we ordered our starters and main courses. The waitress motioned the boys to shush and said Ladies first. A moments panic set in as we realised no-one had been looking at the menu . Luckily for me, I know it pretty well and already have my favourites. Theres a great vegetarian selection, lots of chicken, beef and veal for meat lovers and seafood too. Ninos isnt one of those pasta / pizza restaurants, but if you really want it, theres a page for that as well.
I ordered Insalata Tricolore, a plate of fresh avocado, sliced ripe tomato and mozarella cheese. Best Friend (to my right) had a puff pastry with goats cheese and The Boyfriend (to my left) had the garlic bread. Girl-with-great-hair ordered the Bruschetta, which to my mind is not only a classic dish, but a perfectly executed one here.
The starters came all too quickly, just as The Boyfriend was trying to relate a story told by Mrs A (I couldnt quite catch it) and we were presenting Mr D with his cards. In the absence of any card with pigs on, Id settled for a Thank You In Advance For Not Arresting Me.
My avocado was perfectly ripe, but I couldnt help wishing Id ordered the Bruschetta as the smell drifted down the table towards me. When they came to clear the table, The Boyfriend was still chattering and hadnt managed a mouthful of the garlic bread we pushed it onto a dish to enjoy with his main course, Lasagne.
For mains, we had quite a mixture; Mr D ordered a health conscious salad and Lobster which he pronounced as delicious. Mrs A had a seafood platter which she looked to be enjoying. Best Friend had a lovely looking Fettucine and I had Asparagus Ravioli. I couldnt see what Mr A had, but thanks to a mix up, Girl-with-great-hair got Baked Aubergine instead of the chicken shed ordered. She took it well and although theyd have been happy to whisk it away for her, she tucked in.
The time had come to tell Girl-with-great-hair Mr Ds nickname from school and a few stories about him. These were, of course, embellished and much funnier after alcohol. I managed to get The Boyfriend to eat his lasagne and take back the garlic bread hed tried to dump on my plate.
Pierre continued to attract attention until wed finished. Thanks to a late-ish start, we were the only table left in the restaurant. There seemed to be no hurry though and there was a relaxed atmosphere as we finished off our wine and ordered coffee and Tiramisu. The Tiramisu at Ninos is not the heavy concoction you usually get. Instead, its light and fluffy with a creamy custard perfect when you havent quite got room but dont want to miss out.
At the end of our meal, Mr D made a speech. Thank you all for coming. he said with sincerity. Youve all been there for me at one time or another and I wouldnt where I am now without you. I could say the same about him. He then attempted, with some sleight of hand and a credit card, to pay the bill all by himself. Of course, we didnt let him.
Ninos, as well as being fun, classy and having a great menu is pretty inexpensive. Around £4-5 for a starter, £6-8 for a main course. You can see the full A-La-Carte Menu at http://www.ninos-restaurants.co.uk/A%20la%20carte%20Menu.htm. They also do a cheaper lunch menu and a romantic Valentines version.
We left the restaurant after a stumble of hunting for our coats and stepped out into the cold night air. The short walk through town was packed with Pierres drunken admirers and gave us girls plenty of time to chat, catch up and promise to do this again soon. The boys caught up with us at the car park and set about trying to deal with the logistics of manoeuvring seven people and a penguin into the car.
We had a fantastic night and this place is a gem in the sea of faceless, homogenous chain restaurants that have swamped Reading in the past few years. So, I think the Italian for this is mangiare e godere eat and enjoy!