Piazza Fontana, Cirencester
Em Marshall-Luck finds a surprising Italian treat
A lesson is to be had in not judging by appearances as one approaches Piazza Fontana. Conveniently and centrally located on the now hugely improved and smartened Castle Street in Cirencester’s attractive centre, one reaches this Italian restaurant via a rather unimposing entrance, through a low-ceilinged and slightly dingy passageway with faded and peeling white-painted bricks. I must confess that the flashing OPEN sign and the pre-fabricated door instilled in me a mild sense of trepidation. The young man at the reception desk in the entrance area was hesitant about where to seat us, so the manager and owner, Ersin, was fetched, introduced himself, and seated us at the far end of the conservatory room, looking out over a little courtyard with pleasing, old stone walls and plants abounding; one can imagine the courtyard being a lovely spot to eat in the warmer days of the year.
The conservatory room features wooden laminate flooring and surprisingly comfortable wooden chairs and banquettes with dark green padded seats. Two walls are predominantly windows, one featuring stencilled orange trees; the long wall behind our table is green, with a wall painting depicting a Roman-looking fountain; and the other wall rises to its apex with a white-painted tongue and groove boarding, and sports an ironwork clock. Plants and a faux fountain impart a further sense of the outdoors indoors; and a pretty little black and white wooden rocking horse is a rather sweet decorative touch. We thought that the conservatory was the nicer of the two rooms; the other (through which one enters) being more functional, with a mixture of cream and lime green walls with red stripes; and black and white pictures of Italy and Italians.
The menu is, I would say, the perfect length – neither suspiciously long, nor too short, with perhaps more of a focus on meat dishes than one would find in the usual Italian restaurant: featuring several fish dishes, a number of chicken dishes, a few veal and pork, and plenty of steak. Then there are the usual pastas, broken down into vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, and plentiful starters, with a healthy focus on cheese-orientated plates. There are also a number of specials of the day (swordfish, sardines, and pasta with steak when we visited), all of which we were talked through.
The wine list was likewise short but well-chosen; we asked for a recommendation and were taken off-menu, with a spectacularly good Shiraz from Sicily: Camene 2015. It had a dark, rich purple colour and a nose of sweet, ripe, dark berry fruit; then on the palate the most glorious burst of sweetness, followed by the darkness and fruitiness of plums, blackberries and cherries. The finish is delightfully long and lingering, with that sweetness abiding and complemented by a fiery bite of pepper and spice. A truly magnificent wine; unusual and outstanding. Tristan was overjoyed to find that they served pineapple juice; and the mineral water was from the Italian Alps.
We commenced our meal by sharing the pizza base bread with garlic butter, parsley and mozzarella, which was hugely impressive: this was a proper, authentic, pizza base: crusty and chewy, with slightly blackened bubbled rings, with a strong but not overwhelming garlic flavour and deliciously cheesy. Having been concerned about my low hunger levels when we arrived, it was so ineffably delicious that I nevertheless managed to demolish almost the entire pizza garlic bread single-handedly; my husband and young Tristan had to fall back on the basket of ciabatta bread and olives that had also been brought. This toasted ciabatta was excellent – sufficiently chewy to lend substance, but still light and buoyant, while the olives were also very good: subtly flavoured and seasoned, both black and green varieties impressively fresh, and the black olives were without the mustiness that one so often encounters.
I went off-menu with my main also, asking if they could do vitello alla Milanese for me; pleasingly (and as one would hope), this presented no problem. I was brought a large plate with three substantial pieces of veal, and a little salad on the side. Regrettably, the veal did not live up to the outstanding standard of the starter; the meat and its breadcrumb surrounding were a little too much on the chewy, bland and toothsome side – the breadcrumb coating just being too thick and heavy, and the meat also being thicker than I am accustomed to in this dish and consequently feeling too chunky. Of the accompanying vegetables, however, I thought that the green beans were particularly good, doused, as they were, in herbs and butter.
Mr Marshall-Luck’s pork with asparagus and gorgonzola sauce was deemed extremely impressive. A good-sized portion, designed to banish any thought of hunger, the pork itself was lean and tender, and the sauce was almost decadently cheesy, leavened with asparagus which, whilst delicately flavoured, nevertheless had enough presence to hold its own amongst the other ingredients. Altogether a well-thought-through dish, and cooked with flair.
This being an Italian restaurant, we could not resist dessert; Tristan had a ball of ice-cream (which seemed to go down well and tasted particularly and delightfully creamy to us); husband Rupert went for the profiteroles, and I chose the tiramisu. The latter was excellent, the sponge truly soaked in amaretto, and said sponge was slightly denser than one usually finds, contributing to the substance of the dessert. It was also surprisingly – and gratifyingly – less cloyingly sweet than British consumers may have come to expect. The profiteroles were almost dramatically doused in chocolate sauce and cream, the choux pastry deliciously light and soft, and the chocolate, again, most definitely of a ‘continental’ persuasion, the cocoa solids being reassuringly present. Both these desserts thus are most certainly to be recommended.
On the whole, therefore, we had an extremely pleasant dining experience at what is a family-run and very traditional Italian restaurant. The ingredients and the cooking itself were both of a very high standard; they were accompanied by an extraordinarily good wine; and with a pleasant ambience and excellent service. The fact that the restaurant was absolutely full by the time we left speaks volumes about the quality of the food served at Piazza Fontana – the locals are clearly in the know, and slip through that run-down passageway, past the flashing green LED OPEN sign and through that pre-fabricated door with not the slightest hint of trepidation, in the sure knowledge that a fine and convivial meal – at very reasonable prices – will be found within.
Em Marshall-Luck is QR’s Food and Wine Critic