I have always been a big fan of Italian food. To me it’s simplicity is one of its greatest strengths, with the use of a few top quality ingredients to make food that ranges from rustic to sophisticated (which, when executed well, alway maximises flavour).
The success of Italian food around the globe is phenomenal (as is its bastardisation, to the annoyance of many an Italian) and on that front the UK is no exception. Pizza and pasta joints are all over the place in the UK, with pizza (of varying quality and authenticity – don’t get me started on the accursed Hawaiian monstrosity, which was invented in Ontario, Canada by a Greek chap) accounting for 13% of the UK takeaway market.
In Cardiff, we are blessed with some rather good Italian restaurants, l Guardino di Sorrento, Cafe Citta and Casanova being cases in point, but in my neck of the woods (West rather than the Centre or East), the pickings are a bit slimmer. Passed the excellent Calabrisella in Canton, we have Porro ( Italian- ish, by their own admission) in Llandaff and Elgano in Pontcanna (which gets mostly very good reviews). Not as yet tried the latter, but must admit to being just a tad put off by the “authentic Italian cuisine” boast on their website when there is a carbonara that has cream in it (culinary heresy to alot of Italians – I am sure it is very nice, but a carbonara it ain’t in my book and, more pertinently, in the late Antonio Carluccio‘s) on the menu.
This brings me to the recently opened Caffe Fragolino at the top end of the Pencisely Road in Cardiff.
Cafe by day (with some rather good looking Italian breakfast, pastry and lunch items on offer),
it morphs on Friday nights (when it extends its standard 16.30 closure time to 21.30) into an Italian restaurant. It being quite convenient to where I live (and being a big fan of Italian food) Mrs. SF and I decided to give it a go.
The blog title is (as per usual with me) somewhat oblique, but there is method in my madness as you will see if you read on.
Situated in small row of shops, the exterior and interior are reflective of the fact that it is more of a cafe than a restaurant.
Inside it is nice enough, with 30+ covers pretty crammed in. It was packed out on the evening of our visit.
For their evening openings, on a Friday night, the menu changes weekly with there generally being a Italian regional theme (Sicily, Tuscany etc). Our visit was a couple of days after Valentine’s Day and the result of this was that Valentine’s was (sort of) the theme of the night.
I am not really much of a romantic (as Mrs. SF will testify) and don’t tend to buy into the eating out on Valentine’s Day (if I am honest I find the whole thing an utterly contrived bit of marketing puff – gives restaurants a fillip after a hard January though I suppose) so the timing of the visit was coincidental (rather than due to any romantic intent on my part).
The menu was short and sweet with a choice of 3 starters (quite pricey for starters I thought, but I spied before ordering that those going to other tables were quite big and thus potentially suitable for sharing), 4 mains and puds (being mainly a selection of cakes).
The menus for their Friday night events tend to be posted (on social media) at some point in the same week. We booked without knowing what was on the menu and an inquiry as to what would be on it elicited a ” We’re working on it – anything you fancy?”. Quite like that sort of customer approach. Resisting a response of “a large black truffle please”, I possibly unwisely said a “we aren’t fussy” (I then Google the cuisine of Verona – apt for Valentine I thought – and found horse is very popular!).
We didn’t have sight of the menu until we arrive (unusually there was zilch on their twitter, Instagram or Facebook feed on menu composition). As it happens the menu was thankfully – I think – horseless (I have had it before in France – OK and a bit like beef, but oddly sweet – menu said steak but not from which beastie it came).
On the starter front we decided to share that stalwart of the Italian restaurant scene, polpette (meatballs – Nonna’s recipe no doubt) in a Neapolitan sauce (£8.95).
Big enough for a lunch main (vindicating our decision to share), these were very pleasant. Nicely seasoned, yielding, balls of pork and beef with a well flavoured tomato sauce and some lightly toasted bread to mop up the sauce. Pretty good, but with a minor quibble of a paucity of dressing on the salad leaves (some on it, but not enough to really notice)
Next up were the mains and I was tore between the lasagna, the risotto and the fillet steak.
I can’t say I am usually a massive fan of fillet (more a rump, sirloin, onglet or ribeye man, as to me fillet often lacks flavour and is overpriced) or sauce on a steak (prefer the meat to do all the talking), but the £15.95 price tag was both appealing and intriguing (notwithstanding its seeming lack of Italian origin, Steak au Poire being resolutely French as far as I am aware).
This was pretty good, with the beef (it was surprisingly big for a fillet, bearing in mind the price, and had a favour and size that I would associate more with that of rump) tender, nicely seasoned and having a good flavour to it. My only slight qualm was I asked for it rare and it was more medium rare, but it was actually fine.
The peppercorn sauce had a nice, almost abrasive, piquancy to it (from the use of proper green peppercorns) which I really liked and it came with some nicely cooked coucous (polenta – a staple of Verona – would perhaps have been a more apt accompaniment, bearing in mind the theme, with couscous a more Sicilian dish) which had chunks of properly spicy Italian sausage in it.
Not a looker, but a pleasing dish (and good for the price) which would have been excellent had the steak been a touch rarer and a parmesan rich polenta been there in place of the (slightly out of place) couscous.
I made the mistake of ordering parmesan chips (a pricey £3.50) with my steak. Slightly odd for me, as I usually rile against carb on carb (i.e. half and half in Wales), but I was hoping these would hit the heights of those I had recently at Arbennig. These were unfortunately not very good at all.
Undercooked and flabby, with the parmesan adding nothing of note and there being no discernable seasoning on them (curiously the parmesan didn’t impart any saltiness at all), I left pretty much all of them.
Compare these to the triple cooked parmesan and truffles number at Arbennig
and they came up very, very, very short indeed.
Undercooked oven chips is what they looked and tasted like.
This left Mrs. SF’s choice of the saffon and porcini mushroom risotto with (allegedly) Chianti in the mix
When done properly risotto is a thing of silky beauty. Chubby grains of arborio rice cooked so they plump up further and lose their chalkiness, but still retain a little bite, with a creamy silky texture (after full stock absorption is achieved and the starch extracted from the grains of rice having done its job).
This, regrettably, was no thing of beauty.
In fact it was downright ugly. Claggy and chalky, with a serious lack of seasoning (cardinal sin with rice), it seemed to have been simultaneously undercooked (the rice) and overcooked (the silky, creaminess having disappeared into a distasteful clagginess). Whilst the saffon and the mushrooms (reconstituted dried ones and a bit leathery) were in evidence there was no sign whatsoever of the advertised Chianti.
Shoved unceremoniously on top were some chunks of parmesan (were these supposed to have melted into the risotto). Did this dish miss an element of its cooking, I wonder?
I think the issue here was the kitchen is tiny with just one chef beavering away (remarkably calmly bearing in mind the number of covers) and risotto requires time and above all attention if it is to be cooked perfectly. This I suspect had neither and suffered accordingly. Perhaps they were just too busy and it got missed?
Mrs. SF left most of it and we told the waitress it was not very nice at all.
Scanning the other tables the risotto was a dish that seemed to have been universally left by other diners. Clean plates for everything else on the tables around us, bar from the risotto. If others’ risotto was akin to Mr. SF’s that is no surprise at all
On the pudding front they have a range of cakes, tarts and what looks like chocolate puddings/ fondants (not sure as to pricing for these bar from £4.10 for “cake” on the menu), all of which looked quite nice.
Mrs. SF enjoyed her mixed berry baked cheese cake number (£3.45).
I though it had a good (slightly crumbly) texture, but could have done with a few more berries on top and at bit less (i.e none) of the whipped cream.
There is a reasonable selection of both Italian and Welsh beers and Italian focussed soft drinks on offer.
On the wine front it is all Italian with a short selection of reasonably priced stuff sold by the glass
and by the bottle (the bianco is rather predictably a Pinot Grigio, a decent Soave – ideally a Pieropan or a Inama – would have been nice). There was also a Barolo (£45 – not sure from whom, with producer pedigree very important with Barolo as there is some rank stuff at the lower price end and prices are astronomical at the top end) and the restaurant’s namesake, Fragolino – a sparking red from Veneto
We went for a bottle of the Chianti (£15.95 on the night – retails for £7-£8 so a fair mark up).
A decent glugger, this wine, with plenty of red fruit (slightly sour cherries mainly) on the nose and the palate.
I finished off proceedings with a nice (decent strength) espresso (£1.50 – in a very oversized cup).
The blog title refers to spaghetti westerns and the most famous (and to my mind the true classic of the genre) is “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly“.
Here the “good” were the meatballs and the steak, as well as the reasonably priced wine. The “bad” were the pretty grime parmesan chips and, I am afraid to say, the “ugly” was the risotto.
The kitchen is small and manned by one chef. On our visit the place was packed with 32 covers and, personally, I think stuff like risotto (which requires constant attention) is not something that should be attempted where it cannot be given its proper dues. A simple, but flavour packed pasta dish (at which Italian cuisine excels) would have been a much better option on the night. The solitary chef here only had one pair of hands and the risotto clearly suffered as a result.
We paid £63 (sans a tip) for the food and wine, which would have been very good value if one of the mains hadn’t been awful.
We did make it clear to the waiting staff that it was not very nice at all, but this elicited minimal response and it was not removed from the bill. Nigh on £14 is far from cheap for a good risotto and very pricey for a pretty much inedible one. Not being in the mood to argue the toss (we really should have), on what was billed as a Valentine’s night event, we let it go somewhat begrudgingly.
The food here is good if you choose wisely (like me mostly), but bad to downright ugly if (like Mrs. SF) you don’t.
My advice is you’ll be happy enough if you steer clear of the risotto and parmesan chips (give, keeping to the blog title’s spaghetti western theme, these as wide a berth as you would the psychotic baddy in the form of “El Indio” from “A few dollars more“).
Would I go back? Yes, what I had (bar from the fries – just take these off the menu if you aren’t going to do them properly) was pretty good on both the flavour and value front. Mrs. SF would need to choose much more carefully next time though as she came away disappointed and not a little hungry (I did give her a fair bit of my quite large steak). I may have a job in my hands persuading her to go back.
In summary, a tale of ” the good, the bad and the ugly”.
I really hope the fries and, in particular, the risotto were an aberration caused by the full house that night rather than symptomatic of a wider malaise and that Mrs SF just got unlucky (rather than me getting lucky) in terms of what was ordered.
Address: 4 Waun-gron Road, Cardiff, CF5 2JJ
Tel: 07399 596105
Website: click here
Opening hours: Mon – Thurs: 09.30 – 16.30, Fri: 09.30 – 21.00, Sun: Closed.