Rating: **1/2. Serving up Italian fare Ponte De Legno has long been a popular neighbourhood restaurant, but did the service hit the mark?
A sign of a good restaurant is not always about bells and whistles, but how well the basics are done.
I wouldn’t dream of frequenting a chippie where the spuds weren’t up to scratch no matter how marvellous the mushy peas. If the chips aren’t champion then not even a Swarvoski-encrusted tray is going to save them.
And I often feel a pang of disappointment when I’m in a restaurant and the pre-starter bread basket is veering on stale, the butter hinting at rancid. If the chef’s willing to serve a loaf that’s on the the turn then what of the rest of the meal? May as well get the bill right now.
And so to Ponte De Legno, an ever-popular Italian neighbourhood restaurant in the Birmingham suburb of Moseley. It’s always rammed, so you’d expect this to be the sort of place that can do the basics in its sleep.
One of Ponte De Legno’s biggest draws is that it’s a bring your own place, and there’s an off licence and supermarket within easy walking distance.
On arrival we were waved over to a cramped table near to the door, surprising since we had booked a week ahead. This felt like the table left over for last minute walk-ins.
I’ve eaten here a few times, opting for one of the many fish dishes or, on my last visit, the very tasty Penne Siciliana but I’ve never tried one of their pizzas. However, on ordering the classic margherita the young waiter sneered, “But that’s so boring. It’s just cheese and tomato. Nothing else.”
I momentarily waivered, feeling distinctly uncomfortable at this remark but I stuck to my guns and proceeded with my order. Had I commited the ultimate faux pas? It was as if I’d ordered omelette and chips in a curry house (which, if that’s what you fancy then who am I to judge?).
So often when eating out you feel obliged to order something fancier than you actually fancy. On this occasion I fancied a margherita so that’s what I ordered.
When the other half chose the lasagne al forno, we felt the waiter visibly recoil in horror.
If that’s the response ordering a dish is going to get then don’t offer it on the menu in the first place.
Unfortunately, the waiter’s attitude and standard of customer service didn’t vastly improve.
When we ordered a bottle of soda water and sparkling water he bought just the sparkling water. He may have misheard, but he gave us the distinct impression he’d assumed we thought soda and sparkling water were one and the same, so made the decison for us. We then felt as though it was an inconvenience to fulfil our order correctly.
Still, things picked up when the starters arrived. I opted for a big bowl of mussels in chilli and tomato sauce from the specials board, while my boyfriend chose the tomato bruschetta (tut tut, more boring food).
The mussels were plump and delicious, the rich sauce spiked with enough chilli to make my lips tingle long after the final mollusc had been scoffed.
Opposite me, the prettily presented rounds of toasted bread topped with tomatoes, red onion and olive oil also went down well, although I didn’t think the tomatoes looked particularly ripe and was confused by the addition of chopped raw green pepper. Other starters we were tempted by included the grilled goat’s cheese and pine nut salad, the avocado Caprese and the king prawns with chilli, garlic and tomato sauce. However, we were both happy in our choices and, hunger temporarily sated, we sat back and enjoyed the buzz of the restaurant.
It’s a noisy old place, plenty of animated conversations and clinking cutlery and crockery; not the kind of place to share a romantic liaison, even though it always seems full of couples trying to do just that.
Decor is simple, plenty of light wood tables, the walls adorned with Italian-style paintings and chalkboards displaying the day’s specials.
The main courses arrived after a reasonable wait, although we needed to alert the waiter to order more drinks.
There’s loads of choice on the main course menu including plenty of fish including sea bass, swordfish, lobster and halibut not to mention pastas, risottos, meats and, obviously, pizzas.
On previous visits I had always drooled when delicious-looking pizzas were delivered to neighbouring tables. They’re even more tempting when you see chefs in the open kitchen shovelling them into a wood-fired oven – I hoped I was on to a winner.
My heart sunk a little at the plate placed in front of me. Smothered in melted cheese – which already had a slightly leathery appearance suggesting it’d been out of the oven too long already – it looked more like an Americanised-pizza than an Italian job.
I had visions of pools of creamy white mozzarella, oregano-flecked sauce and maybe a handful of basil leaves, but this was something I was more likely to pull from the oven two minutes before the start of X Fac.
However, the lasagne al forno looked far more impressive, so we both tucked in with gusto.
But wait, out accompanying salads had not arrived. We alerted the waiter who irritatedly assured us they were ‘coming’.
Now the problem with an open kitchen is that diners can very clearly see when their food is ‘coming’. And we could see that our salads were not ‘coming’. So we waited patiently, while my pizza becoming less and less appealing. Eventually they were plonked, rather unceremoniously in front of us, along with a rather cumbersome bowl of oil-rich dressing.
I attacked my pizza, relieved that I’d been given a serated knife since the crust took some carving. Sadly, it tasted as mediocre as it looked. Dare I say it, the waiter was right, it was ‘boring’. The tomato sauce lacked any depth, the base chewy and flavourless.
The margherita pizza can be something of beauty; the whole greater than the sum of its parts. But sadly, this one felt like it had been made without much love.
The lasagne was lapped up; the other half praising the fact that the bolognese sauce was not only between the pasta sheets but in unctuous pools around the edges too. Proffering my fork I sampled the meaty filling, it tasted rich and slow-cooked.
Our shared salads were passable, although I noticed that some of the leaves were tinged with brown and the tomatoes bereft of juiciness.
Feeling full but not really satisfied, I reached for the dessert menu.
Choices include fresh strawberries with balsamic vinegar and vanilla ice cream, and chocolate fudge cake.
Once again keen to sample a classic – although feared a snort from the waiter – so I opted for the tiramasu.
This time our order was delivered by a delightful young waitress who, even on previous visits, we have noted is much more accomodating than the other waiters.
Sadly, the tiramasu lacked pizzaz, there was no real hit of espresso or masala wine. It had been drizzled liberally in cheap tasting chocolate sauce, and dredged in half a tin of cocoa powder.
“It looks like a car crash,” commented the boyfriend, who chose the warm peach and almond tart with vanilla ice cream. He was largely impressed, although felt the blueberry sauce unnecessary.
On reflection he’d had a more successful night than me but was actually left just as dissatified by the poor service.
The final nail in the coffin was that we had to ask for our bill three times before it was finally delivered – at which point even the most patient of customer gets irriatable.
The damage was a shade over £50 and included a large bottle of sparkling water, a small bottle of soda water and two Americano coffees – undoubtedly good value.
But what should be the restaurant’s bread and butter – it’s classic pizzas, bruschettas and tiramasu – were all a disappointment.
As was the service.
Visit the restaurant’s website and they boast of ‘a warm family-run restaurant for excellent food, friendly staff and great service’.
Sadly, on this occasion, we found it lacking on all three counts.