REVIEW: Italian Farmhouse, Roker Hotel, Sunderland

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IT’S a case of out with the retro and in with the new, as the latest developement at the Roker opens its doors.

After the launch of cakery Let There be Crumbs at the seafront hotel, attention turned to its Retro Italian restaurant, as part of a site-wide refurbishment plan, including re-launching the hotel as a boutique, four-star, Best Western Plus property, by the end of the year.

Though there wasn’t anything wrong with Retro - I was rather fond of its shabby-chic interiors - it’s been given a £150,000 new look and new name.

Step forward Italian Farmhouse, so called because of owners Tavistock Leisure’s successful Italian Farmhouse in West Rainton.

However, this decor is far removed from the quirky battered suitcases and other curiosities of its namesake.

The theme is now stripped back industrial chic – think sleek tiling and clean lines similar to those favoured at Jamie Oliver’s chain of Italian restaurants

Walls peppered with crates of vegetables, retro food cans and produce hanging from the ceiling are in keeping with the farmhouse element of the name, while huge lighting features spelling out “Love Pizza” in light bulbs are a decor talking point.

If the light bulbs weren’t enough, a huge wood-smoked oven occupies a prime corner spot as a subtle reminder that pizza is king here.

Despite the restaurant’s Mediterranean moniker, the menu is peppered with local suppliers – white fish landed on the North Sea coast and beef reared on nearby farms – always refreshing to know your dinner hails from your doorstep.

As should be with an Italian menu, carbohydrates reign supreme here and there’s a plethora of pizzas and pastas for you to pick your way through - but that’s not to say the options are predictable.

There’s some unusual additions on there, such as slow-cooked rabbit ragu with root vegetables and red wine sauce (£8), and parmesan-breaded escalope of veal, topped with mozzarella, Parma ham and sage (£17).

The plank is a prolific feature on menus these days – I’m not sure why being served food on a wooden board is any better than a plate, but it just is.

We ordered one each. They’re pricier than the bulk of the other starters at £7 each, but you get an abundance of produce for your pounds.

My choice of the meat plank came laden with meats cured in County Durham, vegetable salad, olives, chutney and a flat bread that was just the right side of crispy.

For mains I went with the Linguine allo Scoglio. It was the most expensive pasta dish at £9, but justifiably so. I was presented with a fisherman’s haul of seafood – meaty prawns, mussels, large chunks of salmon, which proved perfectly flaky, and tubes of squid which were deliciously chewy, and not a rubbery let down, as is often the case.

The stars of the show were encased in a linguine, tossed but not drenched, in a light garlic, chilli and olive oil sauce.

Across the table my friend tucked into a pizza from the Romano section priced £10.

Inspired by the metre-long pizza sold on the streets of Rome, this version is hand-stretched further for a bigger base. Indeed, it was a whopper.

Despite being thin and crispy, the base did a sterling job of containing slither upon slither of Parma ham and peppery rocket.

She struggled to wade through it but, spotting her valiant efforts, our cheery waiter offered to box it up for her.

Those watching the pennies should look out for the 777 offer, which should reel people in with its promise of a choice from seven starters and seven mains, pizzas or pastas for £7.77, with a coffee or ice cream to boot.

Pint-sized diners can even take part in pizza masterclasses – just like momma makes.