Review: Pani’s Cafe, High Bridge Street, Newcastle

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TUCKED away on a cobbled side street, Pani’s Cafe has been keeping Newcastle in traditional Italian food for many years.

Family-run and staffed by actual Italians, Pani’s is a hidden gem which is always busy and bustling.

Homely but not kitsch, it specialises in home-cooked grub at purse-friendly prices, which is why I’ve been dining there since I moved to Newcastle as a teenage student.

However packed out it is, you never have to wait long for a table and when a friend and I called in for a lunch-time snack, we were seated within minutes.

The waiters specialise in high-energy Latin charm and with Italian TV blaring overhead, you could almost be on holiday, rather than downtown Newcastle.

Tables packed with Italian students and businesspeople are not an unusual sight, lingering over coffee and chatting with the friendly staff.

A daytime menu is on offer from 10am, offering a wide range of salads, snacks, crepes, pasta and daily specials.

A sucker for seafood, I opted for insalata ai frutti di mare – seafood salad – while my dining partner chose from an extensive list of traditional sandwiches, helpfully numbered one to 10 in the mother tongue, for a quick language lesson.

Served “squashed” on ciabatta bread, it combined parma ham, fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil to devastatingly good effect.

My seafood salad was an olive-oil drizzled crash on the seabed of baby octopus, mussels and prawns, fresh and tasty, if a touch messy for a lunchtime snack.

An evening menu serving up heartier dishes, meats, fish and more kicks in from 5pm and of course there’s the obligatory range of coffees, Italian beers and fruit juices to wash it all down with.

I went for a Menta mint soda, which I’ve never found anywhere else and provides a refreshing change from the usual soft drinks, with a pineapple juice for my companion.

Service at Pani’s is always lightening quick, but this never seems to compromise the quality of the food, making it a popular stop with the lunchtime crowd.

It also offers free Italian lessons, if you fancy a more extensive attempt at mastering the language than stumbling over menu choices.