REVIEW: Italian festive food is the perfect recipe for bringing families together

There are certain words which instantly define the characteristics of a nation and a people.

Family. Cooking. Tomatoes and olive oil. Instantly you are transported to Italy and into the kitchen of mamma.

All the generations are gathered round the table and the unmistakably enticing aromas of healthy Mediterranean cuisine fill your senses.

This vision resonates especially at Christmas - that moment in the year when the clock pauses and everyone comes back home.

When Antonio Carluccio launched his chain of Italian restaurants he went on record saying: “If I could take only the basics of Italian food with me to a desert island, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose hard grained flour, tomatoes, olive oil and Parmesan cheese. If I could take some flavourings I would take some basil and garlic.”

That philosophy permeates all aspects of the chain - where the emphasis remains on authentic cuisine, sensibly priced.

This Christmas, we were invited as a family to visit the Chichester branch in Eastgate Square and sample the festive fare - the Menu Festivo which comes in at £17.95 per person for two courses, plus £3 for a dessert.

If you’ve already enjoyed a little too much of the turkey and Christmas pud then it is refreshingly different.

The decor is crisp, clean and contemporary.

So is the food.

Highlights of the menu are Plin in Brodo, a traditional dish from Piedmont of pinched pasta stuffed with beef and pork in chicken broth; Antipasti, a board laden with baked ricotta served with pane carasau – a Sardinian flat bread – finocchiona salami, prosciutto Gran Sasso, poponcini peppers, balsamic onions, caponata and green beans; and a lobster and crab lasagne or 28-day aged ribeye with truffle butter.

For vegetarians, there’s a dish of Zucca con Verdure Arrostite, roasted butternut squash served with vegetables and pine nuts and a festive risotto of mushrooms, Parmesan and roasted walnuts.

Desserts included Carluccio’s Panettone Tradizionale drizzled with Vin Santo Syrup, or Coppa Di Limoncello Mascarpone, mascarpone cream with limoncello, raspberries, crumbled amaretti biscuits and mint.

It is easy to be a little patronising about chain restaurant food.

That’s a mistake. The joy of groups like Carluccio is they deliver absolute consistency, cater on a scale that ensures they really can compete with the best prices, and yet allow enough autonomy in the local kitchen to ensure that there is a real sense of the home-made.

We were welcomed by duty manager Nuno.

Although we had been invited by head office, he had absolutely no idea that we were anything but ordinary paying guests. He could not have been more welcoming, striking just the right balance between bonhomie and a determination not to intrude in a family gathering.

He was delighted with his recent promotion. We told him he deserves another one soon!

We asked him to choose a sparkling wine. The Cleto Chiarli was a big hit, with lovely warm notes of rosemary - reminiscent of the Italian hills.

This was our best meal out of the season.

The helpings were huge. The mushrooms and kale sauteed with garlic and chilli overflowed the ciabatta. The pan-fried cod was cooked to perfection.

Star dish came with the desserts. The Mascaropone cream drizzled with limoncello and served with raspberries, crumbled amaretti biscuits and lemon shavings in a champagne coupe was light and luscious.

Christmas is all about family and friends. This menu is the perfect excuse to bring them all together.

[] The Restaurant Inspector and his family attended as the guest of Carluccio’s although the visit was not linked to any advertisement or commercial arrangement. The Menu Festivo is £17.95 per person for two courses, add dessert for an additional £3. The Menu Natale is £25.95 per person and includes three courses, a glass of prosecco and a Christmas cracker. Both menus are available until January 3, 2018.

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