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Food review: Jamie's Italian, Cheltenham

By West Country Life  |  Posted: March 15, 2014

  • Jamie's Italian, Cheltenham

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It wasn't the coolest Christmas present in the world but it was one of my favourites.

A four-hour video – retro – of Jamie Oliver rustling up some of his favourite recipes in his trademark bish-bash-bosh style.

I must have been about 11 at the time and the Naked Chef – a nickname adopted for his simple stripped-back approach to cooking rather than his attire – was firmly on the march to celebrity chef stardom.

For three series he ripped up the culinary rule book; tearing herbs rather than chopping them; man-handling salad; cooking a whole breakfast in one pan and serving everything he possibly could on wooden chopping boards.

I felt inspired – at one point I considered taking up a career as a chef – as Jamie became an overnight sensation.

Numerous TV series and recipe books followed – each one more successful than the last – and Jamie's brand became a commercial juggernaut.

Indeed his chain of Italian restaurants stretch all over the world, including Russia.

Closer to home, the Cheltenham branch is surely one of the best.

Chain restaurants are often accused of being faceless and tasteless but housed in the former County Court next to the Everyman Theatre, it certainly doesn't lack atmosphere.

Be sure to book a table in the courtroom itself – on the upstairs level – where you can sit in the public gallery or even the press bench.

Original features have been kept to the point where even the toilets are housed in the cells.

Resisting the temptation to shout 'order! order!' to the polite young waitress we eventually chose from an extensive menu that pays homage to Jamie's love of chilli, lemon and mint.

Starters on offer include bruschetta – one with crab and avocado and another with butternut squash and ricotta – and a selection of bread including rosemary foccacia and the fantastically named ultra-thin music bread.

There are several 'plates' to pick from too with crispy squid, baked mushrooms with smoked mozzarella and spinach and taleggio croquettes all offering themselves invitingly.

But we chose to share arancini balls (£4.95) and one of the restaurant's trademark meat planks (£6.85).

The latter arrived on a thin wooden board, resting on two tins of tomatoes, with thin slices of fennel salami, pistachio-studded mortadella, smokey prosciutto and schiacciata piccante.

A small ball of creamy buffalo mozzarella was flecked with chilli and mint and a wafer-thin wedge of salty pecorino cheese came with a spoonful of chilli jam.

Caper berries and green chillies and a crunchy mound of refreshing salad gave a nice zing of freshness to cut through the naturally fat-laden meat and rich cheese.

Our stuffed risotto rice balls were equally delicious.

Too often greasy, these crisp morsels were a magnificent mouthful; a hint of red chilli combining with al dente rice melting with stringy mozzarella.

Set on a generous swirl of spicy tomato sauce and presented simply but elegantly, they were a big hit.

Mains, on past experiences at Jamie's, can be a little hit and miss. I've had spectacular feathered steak served with the best salsa verde you could imagine but I've also had braised lamb that had little or no taste at all.

Pasta dishes, by and large, are a safe, reliable and tasty bet with all of the pasta home-made, glossy and silky smooth.

My special of the day, tagliatelle with meatballs (£12.95) was no exception with thin ribbons of pasta holding a naturally sweet tomato sauce and plenty of well-seasoned Malteser-size pork meatballs heady with fennel.

My girlfriend's wild mushroom and smoked mozzarella risotto (£12.95) proved equally moreish with its oozing cheese and through gluttony we indulged our love of homemade chips with a portion of their posh potato offerings (£3.25) – drizzled with woody truffle oil and parmesan cheese.

Desserts are plentiful if you can fit them in with Italian classics served alongside crowd-pleasers such as a gooey chocolate brownie.

Alas, despite our best efforts, we couldn't.

If you're salivating already and planning a trip be sure to sign up for Gold Membership before you do. It's free and you are given complimentary tasters and offers when you dine.

Jamie's Italian – given his name and wealth – could be an over-priced commercial venture that's purely a token gesture. But in truth it's anything but.

With seasonal offerings, plentiful portions and a particularly good creamy bottle of prosecco on the drinks' menu, it's pretty darn pukka.

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