An Italian restaurant is taking Cardiff by storm. Helen Adkins finds out why.
When Mark Freeman was persuaded by Toni Venditto to join his restaurant group as executive chef, he realised he had taken on a challenge. Venditto wanted his Da Venditto to become the flagship of his four eateries in Cardiff - a fine-dining establishment that would win both customers and accolades.
Fourteen months on, Freeman, supported by a three-strong brigade, has secured two rosettes for the 50-seat restaurant and the title of AA Restaurant of the Year for Wales 2002. What's more, covers have increased from 50 per week to 50 per night at the weekend and 30 on weekdays and, with an average spend of £40, Freeman now says that the restaurant is "unashamedly expensive" for the city.
Freeman has achieved the restaurant's accolades and popularity by creating a seasonally changing menu that uses the staples of Italian cuisine but also has some classical French, modern British and even south-east Asian influences. "I would say our style slides between River Caf‚ and Zafferano's," he explains.
He places great importance on the quality of his raw ingredients, most of which are imported from Italy, although some are sourced at Rungis market in Paris. Meat comes from London, while fish is brought up from Devon. "It's necessary in order to make an impact and get a real Italian taste," says Freeman. "Working in an Italian restaurant means I have to be spot-on. If I can't make pasta or risotto properly, I shouldn't be here. I'm pinning my badge on these dishes."
The saffron and rocket risotto (£6.50) is one of the more popular starters and one of Freeman's favourites. He spent some time researching how to make the perfect risotto, gleaning inspiration from books, as well as trips to Italy with Venditto. Risotto rice is blanched for five minutes before cooking and "acid butter" - onions, white wine vinegar, white wine and cream - is added for sharpness and richness. A nage of vegetables, double chicken stock or crab bisque is then used, depending on the flavour of the risotto, and, in this case, plenty of saffron is added. Freeman then adds unsalted butter and Parmesan, before whisking in cream for whiteness.
Antipasti include oyster cappuccino with caviar (£8), served in a cup with a blini and a teaspoon of crème fraîche and caviar, and wood-roasted fennel and baby clam soup (£6.50). Freeman's French influence can be seen in a warm foie gras bruschetta, crushed cannellini beans and wood-roasted beetroot vinaigrette (£9.50).
Second-course risottos include baked smoked haddock and pea with soft poached egg (£17) and roasted duck breast, broad bean, pea, black pudding and speck (£19.50). Fish dishes change frequently and are dependent on what comes in from the suppliers. Freeman may offer sea bass on risotto, or whole grilled lemon sole, for instance. Dover scallops currently appear, cut into slices, dusted with dried chilli and served with black pudding on mash with a sauce vierge (£18.50).
Besides a choice of four desserts, all at £6.50, the menu offers a selection of Italian cheeses and home-made ice-creams and sorbets to finish.
Da Venditto, 7-8 Park Place, Cardiff CF10 3DP. Tel: 029 2023 0781
Crispy pizza bread, Taleggio, artichoke, Parma ham, new potatoes, slow-roast tomato, trevise, £7.50
Mussel, girolle and ricotta frittata, £7.50
Baked plum tomato and Parmesan tart, purple basil salad, £6.50
Slow-roasted lamb and potato torte, baked trevise, honey and grain mustard vinaigrette, £18.50
Lobster ravioli, lemon grass and shellfish broth, £17.50
Organic chicken suprême, tapenade, globe artichoke tortellini with pak choi, £18
Crème brûlée with balsamic vinegar, £6.50
Dark chocolate tart with amaretto ice-cream, £6.50
Lemon ricotta tart, £6.50