[We paid in full at La Dolce Tavola, but they did kindly give us a bottle of wine as a thank you for support I had shown them as a new business in Rugby]
Ask anyone about the food scene in Rugby and they’ll give you a wry smile. While fellow Warwickshire towns Leamington Spa, Warwick and Stratford-upon-Avon are bursting at the seams with independent restaurants, for a long old time Rugby has felt a bit left behind.
Yes, we have places to eat, and some are pretty good. There’s Cafe Vin Cinq that’s people’s go-to ‘special occasion’ place. Or On the Rocks, a hot-stone restaurant that has grown up over the years to refine its offering from how it first started. Inside the 22 has done various food offerings in its life, from brunch to small plates in the evening, all proving popular.
There are a couple of chains – Bacco Lounge of the Loungers group is a good example of a chain done right, doing consistent food and good service. And there are a few international stalwarts that often go-unnoticed – a brilliant independent Thai restaurant, Herb & Spice, and a plethora of curry houses, Titash being our favourite.
But despite those, it’s safe to say that for a while it’s felt like Rugby stood still when it came to food. Until now. The momentum seems to be picking up, with a few new openings recently – including the incredibly popular La Dolce Tavola.
While neighbouring town Leamington Spa has La Coppola and Villa Capri, both with elaborate interiors and a ‘special occasion’ feel, La Dolca Tavola has more of a rustic, traditional feel. Its interior is a cacophony of pictures and memorabilia, the lights are bright (possibly too bright but I hear dimmer switches are on the shopping list for the owners), and the atmosphere vibrant without being raucous.
It feels cosy and friendly and reminds me much more of a traditional trattoria we’ve visited on trips to Italy than some other local Italian restaurants. The menu is extensive, from antipasti to pasta and risotto, meat and fish dishes, pizzas and homemade desserts that are stacked up in a fridge as you walk in as a silent reminder that you really should try to save some room for one. Good luck with that…
Jamie and I opt for a sharing platter to start. The menu tells us it serves two but trust me when I tell you you should order this for the whole table to share. It quickly becomes apparent that La Dolce Tavola is not a place that serves small portions. This is about hearty food served in big portions – a feature that has undoubtedly contributed to it being such a hit. Call us Midlanders tight – or call us savvy – but in this day and age value matters and people love to feel like they’re getting a good feed for their hard-earned cash, and you definitely get that here.
Deep-fried calamari is tender and cooked right. It’s mixed in with deep-fried slices of potato that prove mildly addictive and make this part of the platter feel like a clever play on fish and chips. Chicken wings are moist and pack a hot sauce punch, and arancini is as good as I’ve had elsewhere, complete with a dollop of melted mozzarella hidden inside like the added bonus it should be.
It doesn’t stop there. There are deep fried meatballs that are well seasoned and full of salty porkiness that can only ever be a good thing. There’s a whole burrata, folded slivers of parma ham that’s gossamer thin and full of flavour, plus some salad and a stack of homemade garlic ciabatta for good measure. It’s too much for two people. Possibly too much for four, but Lucas, who runs La Dolce Tavola alongside sister Joanna and her husband, is obviously used to it since an offer to box up the leftovers comes quickly and with a knowing smile.
Our friend opts for the deep-fried king prawns that again come with those thinly-sliced fried potatoes tucked away amongst them. They get the thumbs up, but it’s the spicy tomato sauce that comes for them to dip in that really steals the show and is soon being passed around the table.
The main course menu has all four of us heading in different directions, with promises to return and try all the dishes we missed out on but couldn’t try on a first outing. For one of our party, it’s the seafood linguine. Decent pasta, I’m told, with plenty of seafood and when asked if it’s lacking in sauce, we’re told no, it’s just right and really tasty.
I’m never good at making decisions, especially not when a menu is this extensive and offers so much. So I ask Lukas’ advice. He suggests the fish stew that I’ve heard great things about, but – in words I lived to regret – I insist I want something ‘more substantial’. And on this, La Dolca Tavola certainly delivered.
I’m steered towards the Braciola di Maiale alla Bolognese – a breaded pork cutlet covered in bolognese sauce, mozzarella and speck. I know when it’s coming because a hush descends over the restaurant as the huge wooden board creaking under the weight of a huge pork tomahawk, covered in crisp, golden breadcrumbs and draped in a blanket of melting mozzarella comes slowly and steadily towards me.
It’s big. Comedically so, and the hush soon turns into the laughter of disbelief that this is a dish for one person. It’s bigger than my head, but it’s good. The pork’s tender, the breadcrumbs crispy and clean-tasting. The bolognese is rich, and the soft cheese is punctuated by crispy pieces of fried ham.
That’s not all. There is steamed veg that’s still got the fresh flavour and crunchiness it should have, as well as some gorgeously crispy roast potatoes. At £16.20 it’s an utter bargain, especially as I only manage a quarter, leaving the rest to feed other people or me for the next few days.
Jamie’s dish is almost as extreme, though not quite. Sirloin steak topped with chicken liver, portobello mushroom and gravy. It’s two steaks, stacked up with their rich companions like a castle’s keep amidst a moat of gravy. He can’t finish it, but declares it well cooked and more value for money at £25 given its size.
The final main is one of the specials – salmon and risotto. Another mammoth portion – it seems here one piece of meat or fish is seen as inadequate unless that piece is too big for a plate and has to come on a board. The salmon skin is crispy, its flesh moist and flakes apart nicely, and the risotto is one of many that I’ve heard are well worth ordering. Firmly on the list for next time!
Several of the mains go back unfinished, purely due to the size. But any disappointment at having to leave good food is buoyed by the idea of eating it again the next day. It also doesn’t stop us ordering dessert between us. Jamie’s affogato is the caffeine-doused ice cream treat he wants, while the fact our pal scraped the tiramisu jar clean seems to suggest it was rather good too.
The full stop to the meal were a few complimentary chocolate cannoli. Entirely unnecessary and a tiny bit dry for my liking, but they soaked up the shot of limoncello that continued the nostalgia for similar after-dinner moments in Italy.
We’re very full when we leave, and judging by the number of people leaving with takeaway box, we’re not alone in thinking the porti0ns are a bit on the big side. Not a problem for those who are happy to take it away, as it appears most are, though I wonder if La Dolce Tavola would be more savvy to reduce the portions slightly – for their own pockets and to limit waste. That said, I’ll stand by the fact that people love good value.
More importantly, this isn’t just cheap rubbish. It’s food that tastes good, served up in a place that feels cosy, rustic and warm. For those of us who have waited years for Rugby’s food and drink scene to gather pace, the addition of La Dolce Tavola to our town can only be a good thing, and it’s a bonus that it’s run by people who seem very much to care about what they do. It’s early success is a brilliant sign of things to come, and I’ve only heard good things from those who have dined there. Long may it last – La Dolce Tavola, we hope you’re here to stay.