I bloody love a good Italian. This was the reason I tried to get into Giovanni’s yesterday, slap bang in the middle of Cardiff with an awning proclaiming itself ‘The Longest Established Family Run Restaurant in Wales’. 1983 still seems relatively recent to me, but that is simply showing my age. Unfortunately they were incredibly busy, but happily that led to two further events – a truly superb lunch round the corner at Asador 44, and the chance to try again today.
I was already having, it has to be said, a very good weekend. Christmas shows at The Glee Club in Cardiff have been excellent – by which I mean not too Christmassy. I have taken in a couple of decent runs around the picturesque Bute Park, done some light shopping, written a little blog and watched quite a lot of World Cup football. Obviously I miss my children and my wife hates me, but that is a cross I will have to bear. Especially as she is really going to hate the next bit.
If any country in the world was put in charge of food for everyone else, I would always vote for Italy (although America can do the sandwiches.) There is a something about the Italian joy in feeding, and eating, and a reverence for ingredients bordering on the quasi-religious. Having popped my head in yesterday, I knew that was exactly what I was going to get at Giovanni’s. The photos on the wall reminded me of Corelli’s in Battersea (now sadly under new management,) the menu of a pared down Bar Napoli in Edinburgh, (which anyone who has ever done the Edinburgh Festival knows is high praise indeed,) and the seating of a rush hour tube. If only I could get a table.
Luckily, they squeezed me in. And when I say squeezed, I really mean like a sardine, or should that be Sardinian? I was squashed into a corner by the kitchen entrance, on a table that had to be physically moved away from the wall so I could get into it, with my head in the dessert fridge and my elbows neatly placed in my neighbour’s lasagne. And you know what? I minded not a jot (although she may have.)
As a creature of habit, I often have set meals I go for to establish the credentials of a certain type of restaurant – the pho in a Vietnamese or tom yum in a Thai – and my go to Italian order is very simple: minestrone soup and a carbonara. In the immortal words of The Breakfast Club ‘all the food groups are represented’.
My soup was excellent. I could almost feel myself glowing from vegetable heartiness. A couple of slices of warm bread were perfect for mopping up the dregs. I have two criticisms. I would have like more of it. For £7.95 a half full bowl felt a little parsimonious. I liked it, and I wanted more of it. My second criticism is almost criminal for an Italian restaurant. They had no carbonara.
You will be unsurprised to learn that a food tedium receptacle like myself has an almost fascistic approach to certain menu items (hey, when in Rome…) Carbonara is one of them. Garlic, pancetta, egg, parmesan, black pepper, pasta (and a little of the water.) THERE WILL BE NO CREAM. OR MUSHROOMS. Giovanni’s however, had no carbonara. So what I went for instead was Specialita’ di Giovanni – a completely different pasta dish containing ham and mushrooms in a creamy wine sauce. As it was not carbonara, this was acceptable. My god it was good. Piping hot pasta in a perfectly reduced sauce almost, but not quite over seasoned. Just quintessential Italian comfort food, washed down with one of those perfectly sized bottles of Pellegrino that is not so small you have to order two or so big you waterlog yourself.
The speed with which I finished this off attracted the attention of the couple sitting next to me, which is unsurprising as I was sitting in one of their laps. This is where Giovanni’s really came into its own. They were a mother and daughter from Mumbles treating themselves to a day out in Cardiff. The mum had been rhapsodising about her lamb shank since I had sat down. We had already gone through the bingo card of descriptions – “cut through it like butter,” “falls off the bone” etc when she said something I thought was just wonderful – “I love it here. It’s always SO good. Every time I come to Cardiff I just want to eat here.” Any place that can warm the heart as much as the stomach is to be treasured. We had a lovely chat about her Labrador, her daughter’s work as a consultant rheumatologist, the parlous state of the NHS and the perils of winter golf. We only paused for me to hoover up a tiramisu which I had to have as it had been sat in the fridge next to me looking needy for the past half hour. It was excellent – even if I was by now very glad I’d managed to fit in a run before lunch as, like all the best tiramisu, it was basically a slab of cream in search of a disguise.
And that was that. Both our bills arrived at the same time, and although Giovanni’s is not cheap – £36 including service – neither should it be for an experience like that. I said a happy goodbye to my new friends as they toddled off for a spa and I rolled back to my hotel to watch a bit more football before heading off for my last gig of the weekend.
So, in terms of the great Spanish Italian Cardiff match up previewed in my last blog, it was very much a one all draw. Of course, Wales and Spain were both knocked out of the World Cup early and Italy didn’t even qualify. England quarter final was that evening. Given the luck I had had over the last three days, I knew something had to change and I wasn’t in the least surprised to see us dumped unceremoniously out of the competition by the French. But hey, it was a hell of a weekend until then.