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Lacklustre

Vecchia Napoli
Salini Resort,
Salina Bay

Food: 6/10
Location: 9/10
Service: 8/10
Value: 8/10
Overall: 7/10

Photographing your food makes it taste better. There’s some science for you – only I think it’s bogus.

Research suggests that taking the time to snap a picture of your food prior to eating should help it taste better. Making this tiny pre-meal ritual  before allowing yourself to attack the dish focuses your attention on the food and its flavour, thereby enhancing the taste.

I remain incredulous.

I refuse to accept that this can be true. It’s certainly not the case with these starters. I am forced to take their picture for the purposes of this article – a practice I wholly detest, but a habit that I have nonetheless been compelled to adopt.

Photo or no photo, nothing can save them. From a menu shaped entirely from Italian classics – Vecchia Napoli sells itself as a properly Neapolitan restaurant chain –  we have chosen the calamari fritti, the neonati fritters and the croquettes.

After taking its picture, the calamari fritti remain the colourless tangle of rings and limp, wet limbs they appeared to be all along. They sit miserably in a bowl, bending and bowing, barely crispy, looking as sad and forlorn as ever.

Without raised expectations, we reluctantly attempt a tasting. They are terrible; tough and rubbery. Hardly addictive, they are not the crisp, tender golden rings I anticipated – the sort over which lemon wedges are eagerly squeezed and salt is lightly sprinkled, the kind that are eaten hot by the fistful.

The polpette di neonati fritters; fat, flat things; have no bite, no punch. These little fish fritters are but textured lumps; insipid and meaningless with no flavour to them whatsoever. None of the chilli, the garlic, the fresh herbs or the lemon with which they claim to be seasoned comes through. It’s all gone missing in action.

The potato croquettes with a filling of smoked ham and grana padano cheese, and another kind filled with fresh spinach and mozzarella, are bland and dreary.

It’s not a good start. Our starters should have been an example of the simple things done well; only they weren’t. After this absolute exercise in mediocrity we move on to pizza and pasta dishes.

Sadly not a paragon of Neapolitan cuisine

For all the ferocious workings of the enormous wood-burning oven, the pizza is pretty average. It’s hardly the worst I’ve ever eaten, but it wouldn’t stand up in the ancestral homeland. The flavours of the pizza del carmine are good; tomato sauce and mozzarella, scattered with caramelised onions, anchovies and tuna and bursts of garlic and oregano; but its blistered crust hides a base that is far too soft and barely crisp. There is no pleasingly supple chew to it. And the essential element, the art of a truly good pizza, lies first and foremost in its base. The same soggy-bottomed fate befalls the otto peccati pizza. Topped with crisped, lip-tingling spicy salami, its fiery kick is tamed by the sweet, lactic blandness of the fior di latte mozzarella and the tomato sauce. The calzone capo di monte is by far the best of the lot, a mountain of a thing rising like Vesuvius itself from the plate. Opening with a gust of steam, here rich flavours meld together nicely with a seemingly endless selection of cheeses; mozzarella fior di latte, grana padano, parmigiano reggiano, fontina, emmenthal and italico cheese; that melt and fold into one another, falling unctuously in strings down my chin. Cutting through the cheesy richness is the saltiness of the ethereally-sliced prosciutto crudo, the freshness of the rocket, the seductive earthiness of the cream of truffles and mushrooms and the strongly-flavoured chicory; bitter and assertive.

I try the speciality of the house, the baked pasta dish of Timballo, also known as Timpano. This is doubtless the father of Malta’s very own Timpana - ours a seemingly watered down reworking of the original. For Timballo is a mythical dome of golden pastry crust encasing a veritable mountain of exceptionally dense filling. Recipes differ from region to region, allowing for the Timballo to be packed with all manner of layers; cheeses, pasta or rice, meats, vegetables and eggs. What a beast. A sliver of this could keep me going for a week. This edible architectural construction is greedy, it is sinful. It is a bold expression of butchness, full of heft, that demands to be liked. Boasting the solidity of a boulder, Vecchia Napoli’s pastry pie is built to feed those who want to be fed. Its solid innards are bursting at the seams. Out of a thickly cut, sturdy slab cascades macaroni in a traditional meat sauce, melted mozarella, pecorino cheese and hardboiled egg, all enveloped and baked in short crust pastry. I abandon myself to it. It cuts nicely, filled with a combination of hearty ingredients that are robustly seasoned. The crust has a nice enough texture but the pasta is over-done. The spaghetti puttanesca should have brimmed with fiery, robust flavour. Vecchia Napoli failed to make it even remotely memorable. The sauce is dry and grossly under-seasoned; not satisfyingly savoury in the slightest.

For dessert we move outside on to the restaurant’s lovely terrace to enjoy the views over Salina Bay. Desserts are hardly earth-shattering, although the lemon sorbet is nice and refreshingly sweet with a fluffy,  creamy consistency to it. I find it restorative as I quietly bake in the dry heat of the terrace. It makes the perfect digestif.

The tiramisu, on the other hand, is a soppy, overworked affair. Perhaps the biscuits had been over-soaked in the coffee, perhaps the entire thing had been left to set for far too long – whatever the case,  the result is a tiramisu that is far too soggy.

Desserts are cleared and we take it all in. The idea for the restaurant is  a good one; the establishment is delightfully located and the staff are lovely. The service provided is efficient and friendly but the reasonably priced food has its flaws. After a strong promise of authentic Neapolitan, well,  everything, the kitchen seemed to have made an extra effort to underachieve. The overall reality fails to hit the mark.

It is sadly not a paragon of Neapolitan cuisine.

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