Mio Dio! Italian antidote to attack of the clones

ITALIAN food has become such a familiar presence in the nation’s kitchens, high streets and shopping centres it’s no mean feat to establish something fresh which brings new flavour to the cuisine.

Whether it’s Carluccio’s, ASK, or the local independent with the statue of a stereotypical Italian chef that’s been there since 1973, Italian is a favourite, but its popularity as a “safe” choice can make it something of a bore for the more adventurous foodie.

One of Southend’s newest restaurants, Route5, is a refreshing departure from this attack of the clones, one of the reasons being it doesn’t attempt to produce a catch-all “Italian” cuisine which doesn’t really exist in a region which wasn’t even a single country until 1861.

The restaurant’s owners, Stefano Messina and Federica Nicche, are from Sicily and Abruzzo (near Lazio), respectively, and with Federica’s mother in the kitchen, the focus of the menu is very much centred on her home country.

Also brought to the table is Stefano’s experience as a barman in Sicily and London, and its negroni, my test of a good cocktail bar, was a pleasing start to the meal. For starters, myself and my companion ordered Sicilian arancini – three deep-fried rice balls, one filled with beef ragu and cheese, one with spinach and cheese, and another with ham and cheese – and Abruzzo cacio e uova–four balls of cheese and egg slow cooked in tomato sauce.

Of the two delicious entrees, the cacio e uova was by far the standout dish, contrasting deep, earthy, flavours in the cheeses with a bright and refreshing tomato sauce. This comes highly recommended. For our mains, both of us opted for another Abruzzo staple – arrosticini. These grilled mutton skewers are rich in flavour with a slightly salty taste and come served with two slices of homemade bread and olive oil. A good, meaty, dish and something a little different from anyone bored of pasta.

On the side, we ordered boiled broccoli served with avocado, carrots and a lemon and ginger dip and patate arrosto, roast potatoes with rosemary and olive oil. I’m not the biggest fan of roast potatoes but, mio Dio, these were something else. Definitely give them a try.

Then came the second test. Any Italian restaurant worth its salt will produce a superb tiramisu and, despite being native to neither Sicily or Abruzzo, the dessert was served with both quality and quantity. The torta all’arancia my companion ordered was also superb –a beautiful, fluffy, sponge cake smothered in an orange sauce.

I could not help but marvel at how two three course meals, three cocktails, two Peronis, and a coffee, all of such high standard, had come to just over £50. Get yourself down before the prices go up!

This review originally appeared in the Southend Echo.

The Bill

Arancine                                            £4.45

Cacio e uova                                     £4.95

Arrosticini (eight x2)                        £16

Broccoli and avocado                      £2.45

Patate arrosto                                   £1.95

Negroni                                              £5.50

Mai Tai                                                £5.50

Cosmopolitan                                   £5.95

Torta all’arancia                                £3

Tiramisu                                             £3.45