STEPHEN LEWIS finds decent food, a brilliant waiter and stunning decor at Carluccio's

YOU know you're in for a good night out when you find yourself in an Italian restaurant being served by a Sardinian waiter who's keen to practice his Mandarin on your Chinese wife.

The waiter in question was named Luca, and the restaurant was Carluccio's. As for the Mandarin Chinese... to be honest, my wife Lili couldn't understand much of it. It was spoken in a wonderful Sardinian/ Italian accent which made it sound very exotic but not, to be honest, much like Chinese.

There was the obligatory 'ni hao' (hello); and something that sounded suspiciously like Latin gallantry - 'ni zhen mei' (you're very beautiful). That apart, the conversation quickly degenerated into giggles and mutual incomprehension, though Lili did manage to teach Luca how to say 'you're welcome' (mei guanxi).

Luca's Chinese may not have been great, but he proved the perfect waiter; funny, charming and flirtatiousness (towards Lili, not me). He was easily the second best thing about Carluccio's.

The best thing was the building itself. The new Carluccio's restaurant in St Helen's Square opened to a real fanfare in April.

Antonio Carluccio himself was there, hosting a VIP party to celebrate both the restaurant's opening and his 80th birthday, and showing off the beautiful interiors of the Grade II listed building which was once the Terry's chocolate shop and tea room.

And what an interior. The claim is that the grand staircase with the wonderful domed glass ceiling above was designed by the same company which designed the staircase on the Titanic. There's certainly something of Edwardianopulence about the interior of the upstairs dining room, with its original wood panelling, marble-topped tables and three balcony windows looking out over St Helen's Square.

When we booked, we specifically asked for a table upstairs, and we arrived early enough to select a table at one of these windows. It was the last day of York Races - and our viewpoint gave us the perfect place from which to people-watch (and listen).

Then along came Luca and his cheerful attempts to chat in Chinese. All was set fair for a great evening.

Sadly, the food didn't quite live up to the promise of either location or waiter. It wasn't bad, by any means. Just not quite as special as we'd hoped.

There was a beautiful bottle of tempting olive oil sitting on our table. But until we asked, we weren't given any bread to drizzle it on. That should be a given in an Italian restaurant, surely? When it did come, it was delicious: fresh and moist, with a wonderfully salty crust that crunched in the mouth.

By the time it arrived, however, we were already well on with our starters. We could have done with it earlier while we were pondering the menu.

As to those starters: Lili was perfectly happy with her crispy calamari (£6.50), described as 'tender, deep-fried squid rings served with lemon mayonnaise'. She received a generous portion beautifully presented in a flared bowl, and gave the dish the thumbs up. "Crispy and tasty - just right," she said.

As a veggie, I was glad to see that Carluccio's had a separate vegetarian menu. But my own starter, the panzanella (£4.95) was disappointing. It was a salad of tomatoes, celery, peppers and olives, with crusty cubes of fried bread, tossed in olive oil and white wine vinegar. Again, it was beautifully presented, and the ingredients were fresh. But it lacked seasoning. A drop of balsamic vinegar would have given it more kick .

My starter, the Penne Giardinera (£9.95) was better: the giant shells of penne pasta beautifully chewy, the sauce of courgettes, chili and fried spinach buttery and with a strong garlicky kick (as advertised. ... don't order this dish if you don't like garlic). It could perhaps have done with a touch more chili heat, but I was satisfied. A large glass of rich, smooth Montepulciano D'Abruzzo Contri (£6.50), with cool dark notes fading to a hint of spice, was the perfect accompaniment.

Lili's Duck Pappardelle (£13.50), however, wasn't what she had hoped for. It was described as 'slow cooked duck, pork, pancetta and mushroom ragu, topped with garlic breadcrumbs'. It was partly her fault: she hadn't realised what ragu was, and expected large slices of tender duck and pork rather than the ragu sauce with pasta she got. The dish was tasty enough, she conceded. "But it wasn't what I thought."

Her vanilla and chocolate ice cream desert (4.25 for two scoops) slid down a treat, however. And the vanilla panna cotta with which I finished was the highlight of my meal: quivering on the plate; thick, creamy and with a delightful lingering flavour of vanilla on the palate.

All in all, the food was perfectly decent. But where Carluccio's wins hands down is in that wonderful ornate dining room with its balcony windows looking out over St Helen's Square. And there's Luca, of course. Just don't try ordering in Chinese - you don't know what you might get...

Fact file

  • Carluccio's, St Helen's Square, York York YO1 8QW.
  • Telephone: 01904 656536
  • Website:
  • Food: Decent. Three stars
  • Ambience: Titanic. Five stars
  • Service: Lucatastic. Four stars
  • Value: Reasonable. Three stars