Italian restaurants are two a penny in Sunderland, but are they worth your pennies?
Everyone’s feeling the pinch before pay day in January, so eating out becomes more of a luxury than usual.
Despite the competition coming and going with their bog standard pizza/pasta options, Tosca’s been reeling in the repeat custom for more than two decades, even on a drizzly Saturday night in mid-January. In all those years, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Tosca advert, it must rely on word of mouth.
So what is its recipe for Italian success?
For starters, it’s one of only a few family-run restaurants in the city, which helps to give it the kind of atmosphere you’d expect from a trattoria in the old country: a place where everyone knows your name.
We don’t visit enough to be on first name terms with the staff, but there were plenty around us who seemed to be and, despite not booking on a Saturday night, our group of three was given a cheery welcome and waved over to a spare table.
Derwent Street is not somewhere that could ever be described as rustic, but candlelit tables, a duck egg blue paint scheme and sepia images of its culinary homeland help you to forget you’re on a shopping street. It’s all a tad more tasteful than your usual Italian affair, with not a sprig of fake ivy or Chianti bottle candle holder in sight.
The proof of a good Italian restaurant, however, is in the pasta.
We visited in time for Happy Hour, even though it was past 8pm, which is advisable if you’re nursing a post-Christmas bank balance.
Unlike most places, which just offer a prawn cocktail here and a spag bol there on their Happy Hour menu, this one offers dozens of options, starting at £3.95 for garlic bread, with pizzas coming in around the £6/7 mark, pastas priced from £5.95 and a range of steaks for £11.95.
I chose the tricolore salad to start: mozzarella, tomato and avocado drizzled with basil oil (£5.75). It arrived as a neatly stacked pile of fresh ingredients, like some kind of leaning tower of starters. The avocado was creamy ripe, the buffalo mozzarella was satisfyingly stringy, it was a perfect medley for a starter of this ilk.
It left me with high hopes for the main. I went with an oldie, but a goodie: spaghetti carbonara (£6.95). It’s a classic dish which is often served overly creamy in English restaurants, which always puts me off – when pasta’s good you don’t need to drown it in a sickeningly-rich sauce.
Just in case, I’d asked them to hold off on the cream here, which wasn’t a problem at all.
Service was swift and my main arrived as a glistening heap of pasta just begging to be twirled on a fork. The spaghetti had that springy texture I never seem to get quite right at home, and was punctuated with plenty of chunks of bacon and mushroom. It was a generous serving. So much so, my twirling fork had to admit defeat.
If I’d had room I would have tucked into one of the home-made desserts which were being whisked past us.
Drinks-wise, the menu isn’t massively extensive, but does the trick with a choice of four whites and four red wines. For big spenders you can even pick up a bottle of Veuve Cliquot for £62 or, at the other end of the scale, bottles of Italian beer such as Peroni for £3.40.
We left with a full tummy and full(ish) purses and vowed to sing the praises of Tosca and add to its word of mouth reputation.