Classy touches boost appeal
You need your eyes firmly on the road while driving along the cone-strewn temporary lane jigsaw that is St Asaph St, but even so there’s no missing the big glowing red V that shouts to the world: here is Cafe Valentino.
The sign is backed up by the big brash fit-out. It’s a cacophony of design with red, yellow, wooden ceiling, brick walls, backlit cabinets, framed posters, tiles, booths, and on it goes.
Cafe Valentino has been open a couple of years here, its new home after two decades in Colombo St before it was ‘‘quaked’’ in 2011. A nice touch is a battered looking bottle of Penfolds Grange in a trophy cabinet on the wall that was pulled from the rubble.
The tables are packed tightly but the soaring high ceilings of the old Social Credit building make it feel spacious yet buzzy.
While you can get more mainstream mains – such as steak and chicken and lamb (most with an Italian tweak) – we wanted a more casual meal and so turned to the pastas and pizza. It’s a big menu with lots of choices, which can sometimes be off-putting because you wonder how a kitchen can take a dish seriously with so many different things to handle. But the staffing is reassuringly big and the open plan kitchen at the back was full of chefs whose occasional hob flame-ups added to the spectacle.
Puttanesca’s my favourite pasta sauce and this was a chance to try out a pizza version and also test the heavily tiled, imported Italian wood-fired oven.
I rate it a very good pizza, with a lovely charred thin base. The topping had gutsy flavours from anchovies, olives, whole roasted garlic bulbs, capers, a decent tomato sauce and several creamy pools of melted mozzarella. But I couldn’t spot any wood smoke flavouring from the oven.
Also good was ‘‘three cheese’’ and pesto ravioli served in a thick rich creamy sauce. This was topped by crunchy walnuts and a garnish of broccoli. Blue cheese dominated the flavour, which is a plus. More pesto in the ravioli would have lifted the dish further. The ravioli pasta was significantly silkier and better than the other pastas – the rigatoni and spaghetti.
A big bowl of spaghetti bolognaise was almost lifeless. The meat sauce was one of the blandest I’ve struck in a long time. Thankfully, the table condiments include salt, pepper, chilli oil, chilli flakes and grated parmesan so you can add oomph yourself, but this was a resuscitation case.
Much better was rigatoni melanze, large grooved tubes of pasta tossed with a rich Neapolitan sauce that starred those roasted garlic bulbs, basil leaves and featured crispy fried eggplant strips on top.
Tiramisu was a must among the desserts. There are so many variations, but Cafe Valentino’s approach is classic and satisfying. There’s a gentle alcohol kick, a lovely coffee kick, soaked layers of biscuit, restrained cream layering, a cocoa dusting and a pool of coffee sauce to dip it in.
Cafe Valentino’s wine list is vast and features plenty of Italian options. The service was pleasant but staff were very busy and always poised to bolt to the next task. It was an enjoyable visit with plenty of quality touches.
Wood-fired: The imported pizza oven has pride of place at the rear of the building.
The Puttanesca Pizza