The last thing Sunderland needs is another Italian restaurant, some might say.
But what the city centre has been lacking, since the closure of Amalfi’s, is an Italian that’s perfectly placed for pre-theatre dining.
That’s where Casa Italia, in the former Cafe Blue Cobra building, comes into play.
We managed to miss the throng of theatre-goers on our visit last Wednesday by arriving after curtain up.
The restaurant is the brainchild of the people behind Santini’s in Seaburn and Simply Italy in Derwent Street, but this sister restaurant has a far trendier edge than its culinary counterparts.
The dark carpets and heavy striped wallpaper of Blue Cobra have been replaced by dark wooden flooring, walls the colour of Merlot, interwoven with feature walls adorned with the distinctive domed buildings of Italy.
We were placed in a corner with side views of a store room, which could have done with being hidden, but other tables offer views out of the period-style windows. The menu too has a flavour of its own. The Italian faithfuls are there, but there’s also a range of cicchetti – Italian tapas to you and I – which gives you the chance to create your own feast of pick’n’mix dishes. You can pick three dishes for under a tenner or five for £15.95 from a range including patatas bravas (cubes of potato in a spicy tomato sauce), whitebait, a range of flatbreads and chorizo and more.
We picked from this section for our starters. Tomato and mozzarella is to Italian starter menus what bread is to butter, but this is one of the cheapest I’ve seen at £2.95.
Despite the purse-pleasing price tag, this was a large, prettily-presented portion.
Sticking with the cheese theme, I chose halloumi (£5.45.)
Though this dish is just as nice grilled, this version was deep fried and I was served with four large triangles of this Cypriot goat’s cheese on a bed of salad. It’s a tougher cheese than most, but the coating helped to give it a more gooey texture.
Feeling flash, I chose the most expensive main, fillet steak, which is just shy of £20. However, mains start from £4.95 for a margherita pizza to £14.95 for seabass. For those watching their waistline, there’s also simply grilled versions of steak and salmon, minus the sinful sauces.
I had no such qualms about indulging and chose the pizzaiola version – garlic, olives, capers, oregano, white wine and tomato sauce.
Soon after ordering – service was swift which bodes well for the theatre crowd – a huge steak was winging its way to my table.
It was a doorstopper of a portion and was beautifully tender. I’d asked for medium rare and it had been sealed perfectly with a juicy, pink centre.
The star of the show was surrounded by artistic swirls of sauce punctuated with plenty of olives and cherry tomatoes. A bed of rocket and pesto blobs of garnish added some colour to the dish. Side servings come in the form of chips, vegetables and salad.
To wet your whistle, there’s a large drinks menu where you can pick up a bottle of house wine for £11.45, bottled lager and beers and a cocktails priced £5.95.
Though we hadn’t booked, if you’re heading there before the Empire, it’s worth doing so– Casa Italia looks to be a new home for pre-theatre eating.