I often have a local drink in the Garden Quarter, at The Chi or Goat & Munch, but when bellies rumble it’s always time to head into the city for food. So it was nice to hang around for a change, invited to experience Italian food and wine at a pop-up event, hosted by local gems.
Let’s rewind a little; I remember speaking to Lina, the owner of Armando’s Deli, during summer, my arms full of pasta, pesto and coffee, about her plans for the shop and beyond. Thoughts were flying – the possibility of gathering up likeminded Italian friends and businesses and putting on a showcase, present a real taste of Italy. Fast forward to November and it’s all over Instagram – her vision; a tasting evening with Bianca Trading (wine merchant), La Cucina Di Paola (chef) and Federica (thedocfoodtalks).
Approaching St Thomas on a quiet, wintery evening, we’re initially worried we’re in the wrong place, but no, we then spot an ajar door, warm light and laughter pouring out. Paola and Lina are greeting guests and showing them through to the main hall, where long, communal-style tables have been set out and decorated with ribboned pots of basil, candles and our menu.
True to form, I tentatively sit down with my husband amongst strangers, worried about making conversation, and several glasses of wine later of course, we’re having a ball. There’s a lot to talk about; the menus are actually booklets with each of the five tasting courses broken down and pictured with recipes – perfect if you want to re-create any of the dishes at home. The ingredients, save for a few dairy/fresh products, are from Armando’s Deli, so you can replicate, feast, and support an independent at your leisure.
There’s a nutritional segment for each course, including recommended doses, health benefits and notes on various studies.
Paola gives a talk, touching on the women and businesses involved in creating the evening, then the food; inviting us to pop over if we want to talk through the ingredients and allergies/intolerances with her.
We’re also given (vitally) a breakdown of the wine we’ll be guzzling, I mean, sipping, courtesy of Bianca Trading. I’m chuffed to discover they’re only based down the road (Marcher House on Sealand Road specifically), with free parking and no minimum order.
And we’re off; to start it’s a glass of Grillo Sicilia Doc 2017 – my favourite of the night – a fresh white with hints of melon, enjoyed with spinach frittata with ricotta and sun-dried tomatoes, and bruschetta with vanilla butter and anchovies. For the first time ever, I actually enjoy anchovies – the salt with the sweet of the butter.
Despite not being much of a red wine fan, I really get on board with my next glass – a Primitivo Piedalto Puglia Igt, even if I can’t pronounce it. I pick up the ‘stewed plums’ and ‘black cherry’ notes; it’s on the fruitier side and a little Christmassy. Guests at our table pay a few pounds for a second glass, enjoyed with our next course, polenta and fennel sausage crostini – a real winter warmer.
By course three, chunky borlotti beans soup with pasta mista, we’re deep into discovering (from a few of our table buddies and long-term residents) about how the Garden Quarter used to look and businesses long gone (riddled with brothels apparently).
We’re treated to a talk on the various wines, where the grapes come from and how they compliment the food. Then it’s a delicious, chunky slab of rice cake with almonds and amaretti and a glass of Prosecco Extra Dry Doc Treviso. I could easily finish off a tray of anything rich and almond flavoured (my favourite tipple is an amaretto sour).
There’s just enough checking in to see how we’re finding the evening, bits of information delivered to the room, and brief gaps between courses to deliver a truly lovely evening. We’ve made friends, filled up on Italian delights, and witnessed the power of local entrepreneurs coming together. We leave with a real sense of community and a better understanding of Italian dining. I plead with Lina and Paola to treat us again – the area needs things like this – reasons to gather, great food and wine, opportunities to share thoughts on Chester and recommend events and restaurants. And if the sold-out evening’s anything to go by – I’m not exactly alone in my request for more.