Review: Toni’s, High Street West, Sunderland

Label shot of Toni's on High Street West (for a review piece).
Label shot of Toni's on High Street West (for a review piece).
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I ADORE Italian food that’s just like mamma makes.

And new kid on the culinary block, Toni’s, has got that winning combination of home-cooked food and family atmosphere down to a tee.

As soon as we walked through the door we were greeted warmly by the owner Toni, a cheery chap whose passion to build this fledgeling business into a successful venture is palpable.

The area around the Empire has been missing an Italian restaurant since Amalfi’s shut up shop, so I was keen to try out this latest addition.

Curiosity too meant even though it was a Thursday night, the place was bustling with diners.

In a nice twist, you can choose where you want to sit – upstairs for the A la Carte menu or downstairs for a choice of the Happy Hour and A La Carte menu.

Upstairs is a transformation from the building’s former guise as bar SR1, and with its moody lighting and elaborate chandeliers is perfect for date nights.

As I was with colleague and chum Cara, however, I chose to sit downstairs.

It has more of a classic Italian theme, with vines and some amazing Venetian masks.

After admiring the feathers and jewels around us, and wondering if we could try them on for photo props, we got down to the serious business of menu perusal.

The A La Carte menu is a classy affair with options such as an Italian meats antipasto (£13); pan-fried Italian sausage with red wine and fennel seeds (£8.95) and a mixed grill of fish with seabass, cod, squid, king prawns and scallops. (£29.50)

But it was one of those nights when I really fancied my good old favourites, so I stuck with the Happy Hour menu – which runs all day, every day – happy days!

There’s all the usual Italian suspects on there – you know the score.

To start, I had mozzaralla wrapped in parma ham (£4.50).

I’ve had this starter in most of the Italian restaurants in town and this was up there with the best of them – plenty of cheese, just how I like it, with a subtle dressing. Feeling decidedly unadventurous, I had a ham and mushroom pizza (£5.40) for my main meal, which was tip top.

Cara went with some more interesting options.

You can pick and mix from either menu, so she chose from the A La Carte to start – beef carpaccio (£6.95) and a Happy Hour spinach and ricotta canelloni for her main (£5.70).

Her starter was divine. “Wheeler, you must try this,” she said. It’s a difficult dish to pull off, but Toni’s got it just right.

For fans of this acquired taste, it’s a must-try.

Her cannelloni too, was a tasty delight.

The service was excellent and, importantly if they are going to pick up the pre-theatre trade before curtain up, it was prompt.

As an added bonus, prices are excellent value. Our meal, with a bottle of wine, only came to £35.

And the Happy Hour menu boasts plenty more bargains, with children’s dishes priced £2.50 and a choice of sirloin steaks at £8.40.

Toni’s has certainly won me over and it’s refreshing to see a new business go out on a limb in a tough economic climate.

Give Toni a try – he’s worth it.