I'VE EATEN at Carluccio's once before and even the added novelty of having my sister wait on me in a branch that boasts an array of celebrity regulars failed to convince me that this was a restaurant worth frequenting.
Here is a chain that, nationally, has suffered mixed fortunes. It's been up, then down, but recently back up again.
"We left with the feeling that something was missing from or contradictory about this chain."
The opening of a new Leeds branch has tempted me back, however, and I'm unexpectedly impressed with my starter.
The antipasto massimo for one (£6.95) was generously portioned with just the right balance of veg and meat: tangy sun dried tomatoes, juicy roasted peppers, perfectly cooked green beans, crunchy rocket and creamy buffalo mozzarella accompanied tasty salami, roasted ham and particularly delicious stuffed chicken.
Although the black olives were a tad salty and the enormous doorstops of focaccia bread would be better substituted with Italian flat bread, I couldn't really complain and lapped up the mysterious garlic kick.
My fellow diner's calamari fritti (£5.95) was well-cooked and sized, presented on a brown grease proof paper bed with a lemon on the side, exactly as the menu promised.
Although the centre is soft and pleasing and the lightly-fried coating is delicately crunchy, the overall effect is a tad bland, lacking a taste partner to complement its own flavour.
Thankfully, Carluccio's garlic bread (£3.95) makes up for this. As a garlic lover, I'm initially wary of too much cheese but as I tucked in further, I realised the strength of the mature fromage was merely masking the garlic and that it was cooked to perfection.
Sadly, the mains were under-whelming. Carluccio's sells itself as a producer of authentic Italian food and perhaps as a sauce lover, here lies the problem.
My wild boar (£8.95) fettucce was well-portioned but like the calamari, a little bland with not enough sauce or meat - what boar there is resembles a sprinkling of meat parmesan and certainly doesn't match the menu's 'meaty' promise.
The wine-braised venison tortelloni (£9.35) would be more suited to a side dish than a main. The rich tasting meaty filling melts in your mouth but its buttery sauce was lacking.
At least I finished on a high with a coppa gelato all'amarena (£5.25) full of tasty home-made vanilla ice cream covered in a sour-tasting amarena sauce with plenty of fleshy succulent cherries to keep me happy.
The special limoncello and orange rind panna cotta (£5.25) doesn't match my finale with a blancmange-like consistency, clearly suffering from over enthusiastic gelatin use.
If 'simple' really is authentic Italian then perhaps Carluccio's does what it says on the tin in some respects. But its menu of uninspiring routine Italian fare is peppered with more unusual dishes that sadly failed to excite.
The restaurant's overall affect exudes trendy minimalism. Its wide expanse open plan makes it look deceptively busy but is also to its detriment, making it too noisy to ever feel intimate. The attentive army of waiting staff paradoxically make our dining experience feel regimented and impersonal.
But we left with the feeling that something was missing from or contradictory about this chain.
Carluccio's, 5, Greek Street, Leeds. LS1 5SX, 0113 242 2038
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