Tag Archives: Pizza

Restaurants in Italy and Spain can be disappointing

We are always told how fantastic the food in Spain and Italy is. And, yes, you can find some great places to eat. But there are also many restaurants where the food is mediocre or awful and the service slapdash.

This is my conclusion having returned from a holiday in Tuscany and Barcelona with my wife and son. I had gone in the expectation of eating great food in wonderful restaurants. Instead more often than not I came away disappointed.

For example, one evening we sat down at a table outside Osteria Enoteca in a small square on Corso Italia, the main shopping street in Pisa. I ordered a pizza with salami, my wife a spaghetti carbonara, and we ordered a margarita for our son. Each dish turned out to be very poor. But the service was just as bad.

Could we have some parmesan, please? Ten minutes later a waiter returns with a small bowl. Could we have some olive oil, please? Another ten minutes goes by before the waiter returns. By the way, I ordered a beer – half an hour ago. The beer arrives after another ten minutes. At 10.20 pm one of the waiters starts stacking the chairs while we are several other customers are still eating.  This was a Tuesday evening in the middle of August when Pisa is packed with tourists.

It was a similar story in several other restaurants we visited in Pisa or in the towns along the Tuscan coast. So many of the waiters we encountered seemed very forgetful.

However, one restaurant in Pisa was brilliant: La Meloria Fried and Fish in Via Domenico Cavalca.  From the outside it doesn’t look much, but the food was excellent (penne with octopus and calamari with boiled potatoes in parsley and olive oil were particularly good) and the service from Elena, the owner, outstanding. She seemed to be able to do six things at once and always with a smile. You could tell from the way she served the customers that she took a pride in her restaurant and was passionate about it. What’s more, you can have a bottle of good wine for nine euro.

In Barcelona the prize for the worst meal I ate goes to La Surena in Port Vell. I ordered dogfish and patatas bravas. Both were disgusting.  Something told me that the food was probably frozen. After we had left the restaurant, I went immediately to a shop to buy some biscuits to take away the awful flavour.

Another bad experience was at Congrejo Loco, a fish and seafood restaurant in Port Olympia. As soon as I saw the prices (190 euro per kilo of lobster), the white table cloths, the huge menus, and the waiters dressed in white jackets I suspected that this would be another disappointment. And it was. I ordered Gallician octopus and potatoes (15 euro). It was saturated in pimento and salt. Truly awful. The restaurant had been chosen by a friend of ours and her husband, because they had had their wedding reception there.  They admitted that it had gone down hill since then.

Two restaurants that were excellent, however, were Laia in Blanes, a resort on the Catalan coast, where I had some delicious baby calamari, and Entre Pam I Tapes in Badalona, on the northern edge of Barcelona, where I had the best patatatas bravas I’ve ever eaten.

Chefs such as Rick Stein, Gennaro Contaldo, and Jose Pizaro have done a wonderful job in convincing us that Italy and Spain are gastronomic wonderlands. The truth is that there are many restaurants that dish up food that is as poor as you would get in some places in Britain and that seem to care little about providing diners with a memorable experience.

 

 

 

Franco Manca – great restaurant model

Coming up with the right business model for a restaurant must be one of the hardest things. We can all think of places where, for one reason or another, the owners have got so much of it wrong. Yes, the food scene in London is unrecognisable from twenty years ago, but there are still many very mediocre restaurants as well as some truly awful ones.

London is, of course, awash with pizza restaurants, and many of them pretty good, I’m happy to say.  For example, I’m a big fan of Ask, whose branches never disappoint either in the quality of food or the service.  Some people can be sniffy about chains. I have no such qualms, provided they are good.

At the weekend, I visited Franco Manca in Lordship Lane, East Dulwich. Franco Manca started out in Brixton in 2008 when Giuseppe Mascoli, who came to London in 1989 as an assistant lecturer at the London School of Economics, started offering sour dough pizzas. Unlike now, they were a bit of a novelty back then.

The pizzas are cooked for 40 seconds in a wood-burning oven at 500 degrees. They are prepared by pizzaiolos using the traditional method that Mascoli learned at his family home in Naples.

His Brixton restaurant turned out to be a roaring success, and Giuseppe went on to open other branches across London. In 2015 he sold the business to Fulham Shore, which has opened restaurants across the UK.

One of the things that makes Franca Manco different from many restaurants is its menu. It only has six pizzas on offer.  There’s no pasta or anything else, other than a choice between two salads. I’ve always been a great believer in short menus. With just a few items to choose from, there’s a good chance that the food will be very good. And Franca Manca’s pizzas are delicious.

And the prices at Franco Manca take some beating: tomato, garlic and oregano (£4.95), tomato, mozzarella, and basil (£6.40) and, the most expensive, tomato, cured organic chorizo and mozzarella (£7.55).

With their short menu, low prices, delicious pizzas, and, just as importantly, good service, Franco Manca has created a winning business model. I can think of a few places that could learn a thing or two from it.