[Disclosure: We paid in full at Villa Capri]
Italian food has long been a favourite of mine and Jamie’s. Maybe it’s the memories it evokes of special times there. Maybe it’s the focus on simplicity, for both ingredients and cooking style. Or maybe it’s the fact that Italian meals can easily hit five courses, maybe one or two more, and involve an unflinching love of carbs that soothes everyone’s soul.
When it comes to Italian restaurants, there are plenty around – including the chains that offer all the dishes you’d expect to see, yet somehow cleverly erase the passion, indulgence and true joy, serving up bowls of bland pasta, ‘wood-fired pizzas’ as if they are the epitome of all things Italian, and various other dishes that you can get on a budget – when it comes to your pocket as well as any flavour and enjoyment.
But there are some that bring that true taste of Italy right to our little island. And among those sits Villa Capri in Leamington Spa. Once upon a time, if someone asked you where to go in this area for decent Italian food, most people would say La Coppola, but as of May this year, there’s a new kid on the block.
I’d already heard great things about Villa Capri from people who know their stuff, so there was no doubt it was going to be good. But the problem with high expectations is they can be hard to reach. Not so here.
Villa Capri is the kind of place where you can’t help but exhale as you arrive – which in our case was about an hour after our original booking (the perils of being married to a fireman). I don’t know whether it’s the beautiful interior, the wide smiles of the staff, or the bustling noise of people having a good time, but it’s a place where you can’t help but feel at ease.
Yes, it’s carefully lit, the cocktail bar is sultry and smooth, full of luxurious chairs to curl up with a cocktail. The dining room is open and airy, mixing a modern look with the traditional white tablecloths that swathe tables of different shapes and sizes ready for every occasion from date night to family get-togethers or groups of friends.
All of that makes you smile as you sit down, soak up the ambience and open your menu. And that smile is guaranteed to get wider as you leaf through a menu that has all the hallmarks of traditional Italian cuisine, with the promise that it will be as far from those bland bowls of flavourless pasta you may have had in a big-name chain as most of our politicians are from telling the truth.
There’s antipasti, hot and cold, pasta, risotto, pizza, meat courses, fish courses, side dishes. Everything to have either a course or two or a feast strung out over course followed by course followed by course. It’s simple, and classic, serving up dishes you’ve seen time and time before on a million other menus, yet somehow promising more.
A late arrival means the need for garlic bread while we sip on a first drink of champagne for me and my pal and beers for our other halves. It’s light, slightly crispy on the outside yet soft and yielding in the middle. It’s moreish and a promise of what is to come. Simple but brilliantly done.
Despite pan-fried chicken livers calling my name, as well as garlic mushrooms and the meatballs, I opt for prawns in a tomato and chilli sauce. It’s a generous portion, the big juicy prawns wallowing in a sauce that is poky, piquant and sweet. It’s great – and even greater when scooped up using a slice of garlic bread.
Our friend chooses a classic Melanzane Parmigiana – aubergines baked with tomato, garlic and parmesan cheese until it’s a gooey, rich mess of all the best things in life. It’s as rich in flavour as in colour, I’m told, and given the fact I have to resist swooning a bit at it, I believe the positive reviews.
The men among us both opt for mussels, with Jamie declaring the traditional-style bowl stacked high, swimming in a pool of white wine, garlic and cream sauce, some of the best he’s ever had. High praise from the man of few words.
And so to the mains. After seeing so many photographs of Villa Capri’s lobster linguine, I felt it would be sacrilege for there not to be one on our table. Lucky for me, my friend ordered it so we could all sit and admire it in all its glory.
The Linguine All’Astice is billed as being served in a rich white wine and tomato sauce, with parsley and garlic, though it certainly appeared to have a creamy element. I’m told it was rich and indulgent, though perhaps one of those rare occasions when a portion can almost be too big.
I know, I know. Can there ever really be too much food? Well, actually, yes, when it’s so big it becomes daunting, and inevitably wasted because most of us aren’t competition eaters capable of devouring a whole large bowl of pasta on top of a starter full of melted cheese and a share of a garlic pizza bread. That said, if too much of a good thing is the only complaint, then it’s a good complaint category to be in.
A seafood risotto looked equally indulgent, packed with prawns and mussels and that sunny smile courtesy of saffron. One for my hit list next time, that’s for sure.
As much as a hefty heap of pasta, or a bowl of silky risotto called out to me, efforts to be slightly restrained ahead of yet another meal the following night lead me to the salt-baked sea bass. One for the lovers of restaurant theatre, and a reminder that Italian food is most definitely not just about pizza and pasta.
The salt-baked crust means the fillets of sea bass – helpfully detached from the bones for me by our efficient waiter – is moist and packed with flavour. It’s simple food, allowed to sing, without too much messing. Right up my street.
For Jamie it was a steak, of course. A fat, rare ribeye with plenty of marbled fat, some pretty (but maybe unnecessary) decorative blobs of something, cherry tomatoes, and a peppercorn sauce on the side that he said was one of the best he’d ever tasted – thought it may have been slighted bested by a meal we had in between eating at Villa Capri and me writing this review. Either way, it’s a bloody good sauce.
As tempted as we were by desserts and cocktails, Villa Capri slightly did themselves out of us adding these to the bill with the size of their portions. Next time, I feel some sharing being introduced into our evening so we can get right to the end of that lovely menu.
Instead, we were treated to a little post-dinner drink on the house, yet another reminder of the personality, flexibility and hospitality that independents can so often offer over their chain friends.
Villa Capri has everything I want in a restaurant. It’s elegant, smart and professional, yet also comfortable, bustling and friendly. The menu is classic and executed well, and if the only fault is that the portions are slightly too big then I think we can all forgive that.
It’s a place you can spend hours, quaffing lovely wine, spilling sauce down your dress, and giggling over which cocktail to have next. It’s an all-round great experience, and it’s right on our doorstep. How lucky are we.
[We paid in full at Villa Capri. They didn’t know I was a blogger]