THE old adage “never judge a book by a cover” is one that’s certainly applicable to this little slice of Italy.
Its exterior is pretty inconspicuous. I’ve driven past it countless times and it’s always just blended in with all the shop facades along Chester Road.
In all my years living in, and eating my way through, Sunderland, this was my debut San Marino meal. First impressions were great, the welcome’s warm, the atmosphere friendly and informal and the decor is surprisingly trendy, with olive green walls, dark woodwork and feature walls displaying black and white family photos from the old country.
It all helps to create a cosy ambience – you can see why this restaurant is still going strong almost two decades after opening its doors.
Fresh from a shift at the coal face of news, colleague Monica and I visited on a Friday night before 7pm which meant we could order from the Happy Hour menu.
It’s a cheap as chips option with the bulk of the starters – such as garlic mushrooms, bruschetta and potato skins – coming in at £3.50.
You can also pick up any pizza or pasta for £4.95 or chicken dishes, such as deep fried chicken breast with smoked paprika, for £7.20.
We flitted between this menu and the more weighty a la carte option over some free bread. No teeth-shattering crusty French stick here.
The warm rosemary foccacia we were treated to was light, packed with flavour and a perfect way to whet our appetites.
After such a flying start to the meal, my starter was a bit of a damp squib. I’d gone for the deep fried rice balls stuffed with mozzarella, served with smoked chilli relish.
Don’t get me wrong, there were plus points to this dish – three golf ball-sized mounds for £4.95 perched on top a bed of fresh peppery rocket and a chilli relish which packed a punch without being overpowering. However, I couldn’t taste any cheese once I’d tucked into the trio, which left them tasting a little flat and stodgy.
Monica’s starter, however, was a triumph.
Bruschetta can be a basic dish, but here you get plenty for your pounds: a sea of plump plum tomatoes peppered with garlic and herbs almost threatening to break the focaccia bread underneath.
Main meals were served swiftly and soon made up for my starter.
I’d gone for the spaghetti scogliera (£9.75) – the only pasta not available on the Happy Hour menu.
I’d ask for penne instead of spaghetti – in a bid to avoid any potential slurp stains on my shirt – but the staff here are more than happy to accommodate your culinary needs.
The result was a seafood pasta feast of huge knuckle duster king prawns, which were some of the meatiest I’ve had, mussels and regular non-supersize prawns.
The sauce was delicate but delicious and complemented the main ingredients to perfection. Monica too, was impressed with her seafood risotto which was served with a light tomato sauce so as not to detract from the salmon and prawns.
Too busy tucking in, we hadn’t finished our wine before the meal – our only extravagance of the night at £17.90 for a bottle of Pinot Grigio – but there was no shooing us out the door here.