For a twelve-part army of formally united University Administrators, a night-out on the town typically requires a base with a little substance and flair – this is, of course, in addition to a broad menu so to satisfy the diverse range of culinary preferences amongst us as well as an overhead soundtrack at a reasonable pitch in order to facilitate the inevitable round-robin of scandalous office gossip! On this occasion, we had booked to dine at the Welsh Back branch of Aqua Italia – it's intention to bring 'the best of Italian cuisine...to Bristol and Bath' proving rather appealing as, in my view, if all else fails, you really can't go wrong with a darn good pizza!
Date and Time: Monday 27th February 2012, 19:30
Name of Establishment: Aqua Italia*
Location: Welsh Back, Bristol
Reason for Visit: An out-of-office rendezvous with colleagues, past and present
The logistics of the often taboo scenario that is the office-night-out never fails to cause me a degree of anxiety for, as organisational equals, my fellow diners look to me (the self-appointed social secretary and resident ‘foodie’ of the group), to deliver an evening of top-notch tucker and easy conversation. Hence, I toy between venues sporting the ‘safe-bet’ badge and those offering the wow-factor; though seemingly at a greater cost and with a complicated menu that simply doesn’t appeal to that aforementioned obstacle of varying palate. To that end, Aqua Italia seemed like an ample choice and although the evening would ultimately focus upon the company of colleagues past and present, the crisp, sophisticated décor of this river-side establishment was unanimously appreciated. In fact, even before putting a foot inside, the enchanting blue fairy lights that have been strung through the branches of the trees that juxtapose the waters-edge, twinkle blue against the night's sky and, coupled with the ever-present swans that glide silently past, this casts an air of serenity; intended, I'm sure, to be reflected in the ambiance created within. And, with high ceilings, angular arrangements of marble-topped furniture (dressed with pristine, white linen and minimalistic-looking vases of foliage)...not to mention the grand presence of the bar adorned with a rather sizeable vase of decorative lemons, this is, on the large part, achieved. Though not to imply that this is a space devoid of any character – quite the contrary – this was simply an airy, comfortable eatery which suitably accommodated our party amidst the rather respectable buzz of a perfectly proportioned clientèle...and on a Monday evening no less...!
On to the cuisine and as we had pre-ordered our preferences from the menu almost a Month prior to the evening in question, we were not anticipating the elongated wait between courses that occurred. Nevertheless, it did give us time to familiarise ourselves with the dishes we had ordered (via the spreadsheet I had especially prepared...that's right, they don't call me the social secretary for nothing) and, just as a critical case of stomach-rumbling syndrome started to take hold, the starters made their timely entrance. Proving generally well-received with attention to detail to warrant a visual feast prior to one's first mouthful and portion sizes that leaned towards too much rather than not-enough, dishes such as the Sardines su Pane Tostado and Antipasto di Verdure (both £6.95) ate very well. The latter, in particular, with its medley of grilled aubergine, balsamic shallots, courgette, roasted red pepper and torn buffalo mozzarella proving both wholesome and tasty. Plus, although not to the taste of its recipient, the dish was finished with a wonderfully flavoursome garlic coleslaw; an aspect of the ensemble that I just had to rescue and reuse as a punchy garnish to my eagerly awaited pizza...
As a two-course kind of girl and, unsurprisingly, opting for pudding as opposed to a starter, I was seriously wilting by the time that main courses were served. An eventuality that made the limp-looking pizza that had been set before me all the more disappointing. This was the Toscano del Pollo Formaggi (£9.95) which the menu described as a; 'classic Tuscan pizza topped with chicken, red pepper, three cheeses and picked herbs’. In reality however, I received a thin, almost soggy pizza base liberally spread with a tasty tomato sauce but only tentatively scattered with chunks of chicken and finished with a few glistening slithers of caramelised onion – not a red pepper in sight...(as captured below.) Hypothetically speaking and quite literally too, this was a flop. That said, other diners commended the dishes they had received; most of which, although appearing a little minimalistic upon first look, proving rich and filling – the side orders requested to bulk them up becoming somewhat redundant as the evening progressed and appetites began to dissipate. Specifically, the Pollo Farcito (£13.25); an Italian crumbed chicken breast stuffed with mozzarella and pesto was described as delicious – plus, meeting an approving round of oohs and ahhs, this created a serious bout of food envy...particularly on my part! Praise too for the Aqua Burger (£10.95); a decidedly hand-made patty of good quality beef, though ever so slightly unbalanced in terms of its bap to burger ratio, the Risotto alla Zucca (£10.95); with the earthy sweetness of butternut squash comprising a delightfully sunny plate and the Anatra Balsamico con Lamponi (£13.25); the pan-fried duck breast proving perfectly executed and well matched to the crisp bite of its balsamic vinegar and cherry glaze. Our party were rather unimaginative when it came to drinks to accompany our dinner (be it a school night and all) but had we been game, we could have opted for a cocktail from Aqua Italia's extensive line-up...in this instance, I would have chosen the Riverside Bellini (£7.25); a light, fizzy combination of Chambord, raspberry purée and Prosecco. What's more, on a buy-one-get-one-free basis from noon until 7:30pm, this would be a welcome aperitif in the event of a return-visit...
|A little lack lustre...and where are the peppers?!|
And now for dessert and I'm pleased to report that this time, it was well worth the wait – the Torta Inglese Caramellata (£5.75) or, sticky toffee pudding for us Brits, undoubtedly proved the pick of the puddings with its rich, burnt-sugar stickiness, moist consistency and warm, gooey finish - oh yes, this was pudding porn in all its glory and finally, I was in heaven! A finishing dollop of good-quality vanilla-pod ice cream provided the perfect contrast to the hot toffee drizzle with its cool, creamy appeal – just divine and, in my view, compensating entirely for the course that had preceded it. Others chose the Cheesecake cotto Sicilliano (£3.95); home-made by Emelia Schiavetta (the owner's other half), Raspberry Crème Brulee (£5.95) and the Baked Figs (£5.95); all of which were described as delightfully decadent and as a result, thoroughly enjoyed.
|Beautiful Baked Figs|
|Torta Inglese Caramellata - yum!|
All in all, a satisfactory experience – positives included the relaxed, comfortable atmosphere, a commendable level of customer service, (proving friendly and efficient yet unobtrusive) and the wide menu which ultimately accommodates even the fussiest of diners. Negatives constituted the rather pricey nature of the fare which, I’m afraid to say, was not always justified given its tendency to be a little hit and miss in regards to its quality. Also, portion sizes varied enormously; with starters of a larger-than-life composition and main courses rather sparsely plated in places. Lastly, addressing the overall timings that in turn orchestrate the gap between courses may be advisable as having diners keel over with hunger due to waiting forty-five minutes at a time is surely not a favourable outcome! Consequently, I will be keeping an eye out for money-saving offers as when Aqua Italia is good, it is very good, but when it is bad (and you've paid full whack for the privilege), it's rather insulting – the girls and I had a fantastic evening and it's fair to say that the initial criteria in terms of a chitchat ad catch-up was well and truly met. Hence, on this occasion, a dining experience of this kind was just the ticket, however, given the option and in light of the multitude of Italian restaurants gracing our fair city, this certainly wouldn't be my first choice for that aforementioned (and now, quite frankly coveted), darn good pizza!
And now for the second opinion...
The lovely 'PB' gave Aqua Italia 9/10 and in three words, described her experience as ‘fab food’ and ‘fun’…I don’t quite mirror this praise but each to their own!