September 30 2018

Pig Guide review: Amarone, Saw Close

There’s no shortage of eating out options in and around the Theatre Royal/Saw Close quarter – and, what with the flurry of redevelopment action that’s currently revamping the area, it could be said that the theatre’s limelight is receding as food takes centre stage. From prosaic to posh, fast fix to fabulous it’s all going on, so much so that you could be forgiven for overlooking the longstanding, independent Saw Close superstars that have kept Sawclosers satiated since long before the bulldozers flattened the former council car park and turned it into a playground for a handful of national restaurant chains.

Right next door to the theatre and housed in a building that was formerly home to top fop extraordinaire Beau Nash and his lively mistress Juliana, Amarone offers a contemporary dolce vita in subtly sparkling surroundings. Beyond the beautifully-lit facade, beautifully-set tables and uber-cool lighting (get that chandelier!) make for a stylishly elegant setting that, though thoroughly modern in vibe, fails to detract from this listed building’s former glory nor the restaurant’s authentic Italian USP. Both the street level and first floor dining rooms offer views across the Sawclose scene, the atmosphere oozes polished chic, the welcome is warm and friendly and a permanent exhibition of vintage photos of Italy’s coolest style icons add further Romanesque character – the perfect setting, then, against which to start your evening with a Real Italian Negroni (made with Sardinian BioGin and Silvio Carta Vermouth Rosso, don’cha know) and an utterly gorgeous sparkler in the form of Puglian Primitivo Rose Brut from Puglia… one sip and the date night vibe kicked in, and we were suddenly rockin’ the Loren/Ponti vibe.

As you’d expect from an Italian restaurant, various incarnations on the pasta/pizza/risotto theme abound. But we’re on proper Italian restaurant territory here, so meat, fish and shellfish options go large too, all impeccably sourced, all presented to the very best of their advantage… and all at reasurringly down-to-earth prices for the quality on offer.

Our starters of Cozze e Nduja (sautéed mussels with nduja and sourdough) and Granchio e Avocado (crab and avocado ‘sandwich’ served with crab croquette, stem ginger and pickled cucumber micro salad and fennel; pictured) turned out to be a delectable duo indeed. The mussels (a massive heap of fat, fresh, bivalve molluscs bathed in a sensual, subtly spicy ‘nduja sauce) offered an earthy counterpoint for the crab and avocado sandwich, which isn’t strictly a sandwich in the literal sense of the word: it’s actually a crispy-coated, very delicate little buttie indeed, and its crab croquette playmate is one of the most featherlight, graceful incarnations of the croquette genre I’ve ever encountered. Although we all know that looks aren’t everything, it’s worth pointing out here that presentation at Amarone is sul punto at every turn: the mussel dish looked as boldly flavoursome as it tasted; the crab and avocado as exquisitely pretty as the description suggests.

As tantalising as a pizza topped with aubergine marinated in mint and garlic oil and topped with Caciocavallo cheese or the restaurant’s classic lasagne sounded, I find the classic combination of smoked cheese, truffle and risotto irresistible… which is why I’m glad that I didn’t even attempt to resist the charms of Pollo ai Funghi: a soft, neat roll-up of breaded chicken filled with earthy mushrooms, pungent truffle and just-the-right-amount-of-smoky smoked mozzarella, served with a thyme-infused, super-silky mushroom risotto. But as totes lush as my chicken was, the Branzino allo Zabaione easily bagged the ‘most glamorous dish of the evening’ award: moist wild sea bass, a crunchy, crispy squid tail, smooth lemon gnocchi muddled with pesto and Stracchino cheese, lots of perfectly-wilted greens and a froth of featherlight, tarragon zabaione mousse – like, wow; this is one fabulous fish dish indeed.

So well fed were we after our feast that not even the promise of Sicilian lemon tart, chocolate torte or ‘A Memory of Tiramisu’ could tempt us out of the savoury zone. But hey, nessun problema – we’ll be revisiting our little corner of Italian paradise soon, and next time we might just opt for three desserts.

Amarone cleverly bridges the gap between full-on five star gourmet Italian restaurant and upmarket but wholly unostentatious trattoria, as perfect for a special occasion or date night as it is for a speedy pre-theatre supper or casual family get-together. We believe Amarone deserves a standing ovation.

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