Jenessa Williams tries the shiny new sister of one of her faves
It’s easy to walk straight past the original branch of LIVIN’Italy, unassuming and homely, and tucked away under the arches at Granary Wharf. I know, because I’ve done it plenty of times, and it was only this year when I finally stepped inside to dig into a delicious plate of beef ragu ravioli, vowing to return regularly. Instantly becoming one of my local favourites, when I heard about their expansion into the city centre, I felt like a proud Nonna.
Despite the name, it's their non-doughy Tuscan fish stew which impresses the most
Adorned in chrome and burnished wood, sister branch the LIVIN’Italy Dough House on Cloth Hall Street is a little more corporate feeling and, as seats fill up around us on a Friday night and enormous platters begin to emerge, we can see what the owners are going for – large groups of pre-weekend revellers getting their evening off to a tummy-lining start. So, not intimate or romantic like Granary Wharf, but made for groups – here, it’s all about sharing.
My own group of four order truffle fries (£3.50), olives (£3.50) and slices of Speck ham (£5.75) to pick at while we peruse the wider menu – the choice is massive, and the LIVIN'Italy Dough House newspaper-style menu is more broadsheet than tabloid, covering pretty much everything you might expect from an Italian apart from pasta.
Our nibbles arrive promptly and we dive in: the Nocellara olives delivering their trademark buttery tang; the truffle fries causing a bun fight, each one lovingly doused in the good stuff. The Speck, unfortunately, isn’t quite up to spec and feels in need of a little more salt. Maybe I’m just too much of a brine lover – perhaps a Prosciutto or Iberico would have been more up my street – and the portion felt a little stingy for the price tag.
Our friendly server (or Livin’Italier), who has been keeping an attentive (but not overbearing) eye on us, arrives to take our main order: double-dip of the street food selection for me, a Calzoni Fritti (from £6.50) each for my friends, and pizza for my pizza-craving boyfriend… which is when we hit our first snag, as he finds himself in quite the pickle when it transpires that twelve-inch pizzas are only available as gluten-free and if he wants a regular base, he has to order either an individual slice or a whopping twenty-incher, which serves two to three.
Somewhat puzzled, we collectively decide that he should order the big boy Montanara (£15) and we can take the leftovers home, but it seems a pretty bizarre regulation. Sure, the twenty-inch can be split into different toppings for a couple to share, but what if only one of you actually wants pizza
Still, I forget my grumbling when my food arrives. I’ve opted for the Tuscan Fish Stew Caciucco (£7.50) and it’s delicious – mussels, prawns and baby cuttlefish lightly fragranced with cherry tomato confit and perfectly cooked, with a slice of bruschetta lurking at the bottom to sop up all the juice.
My side of Arancini Classico (£5.25) is also pleasant, if unremarkable. The outer crust is perfectly cooked but the rice inside is a little bland and in need of a touch more stock. (For your money, I’d recommend instead getting your deep-fried rice fill from La Bottega Milanese or Poco Sicilian, both of which offer more flavour.)
I lift my head out of my bowl long enough to see how my pals are getting on, but unfortunately it’s something of a mixed reaction.
The oversized pizza is going down a treat and, stealing a slice for myself, I can see why. The dough is light and airy, and the topping is a pretty inspired blend of ham, mushrooms and rosemary-infused potatoes. The sauce could be more plentiful, but the flavours are, as many a food critic would say, ‘very much there’ – tasty if indulgent.
Over in calzone land, things are a little dry – a filling of fried aubergines and salted ricotta cheese in the Siciliano (£6.90) is left much to its own flavour devices and, without much liquid, my pals are finding them a little difficult to get down. I pass around the last of my fish stew to juice things up, but it doesn’t help much – we need more tomatoes! Handing over our half-empty plates, we share our concerns with the apologetic waitress. As this is only their first week of trading, it’s hopefully easy enough to resolve.
Where LIVIN’Italy lacks on the moisture of its food, it sure makes up for with its booze. We skip the tempting gelato counter in favourite of a pudding cocktail each, and find ourselves willing to forgive any of the evening’s earlier inadequacies.
My choice of a Floridita Daiquiri (£8.50) introduces me to something I’d happily revisit – salted grapefruit liquor having a party with white rum and lime in a fancy glass. Between us, we also sample the Amaretto Mai Tai (sweeter than your average; £9.50), the Gin Fizz (complete with jelly ice cubes; £9.50) and a Boozed Tiramisu (£7.95), a grown-up milkshake that tastes like, yes, a creamy, chocolate pudding. Say what you like about the food, I’d book again just for a post-work bev.
For the second branch of a restaurant that has held the bar so high for Italian cuisine (and follows a family tradition started in Milan in the 1980s), my first experience of LIVIN’Italy Dough House could have been better.
In a strange twist, it’s their non-dough, rustic dish of the fish stew that was best; the lack of sauce in the other dishes is a bit of a rookie error, and the options over pizza size feel awkward despite the noble intention to get people sharing and eating together. It makes me wonder if we’d have been better off walking that extra few minutes down the road to the original branch. Still, if they take heed of customer feedback (and keep slinging those excellent cocktails), it’s highly likely that LIVIN’Italy will live pretty well.
PLEASE NOTE: All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: only if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God's own personal chef
Olives 6, Speck 4, Livin’ Fries 7, Montanara Pizza 7, Arancini 6, Fish Stew 8, Calzoni 6
Fast-paced, friendly and attentive