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Scognamiglio's, West Kirby

"ITALIANS," said a close friend, "taught the world how to cook.

"ITALIANS," said a close friend, "taught the world how to cook. Forget the French. The Romans wrote recipe books before the people of Gaul learned how to pick up a pen."

Maybe, but she is a caterer, after all.

Thinking about it, eating Italian is never out of season. To me, it's Campari and Chianti in summer sunshine in Tuscany. The other night, it was diving into the welcome warmth of an Italian establishment to avoid howling hurricanes gusting through the deserted streets of West Kirby.

But what a welcome. Scognamiglio's is bright but not garish, intimate enough to be the place to take someone for a special meal.

Time was this housed a downmarket burger restaurant but that's fast fading into history. Instead, Scognamiglio's has carved its own niche in a part of Wirral which could do with more of the same.

One of the great delights of the place is that staff actually seemed happy we'd gone there. Not for them a sullen grunt as you're shown to your table. And definitely not for them the barked "D'you want drinks?" practically before backside has contacted chair.

Instead, drinks orders were taken once we made eye contact with the waiting-on staff and they arrived with the menu. Good move really, since the menu makes for extensive reading and anyone visiting will be spoilt for choice.
And, oh! the specials. Oyster mushroom soup, beef carpuccio, naturally smoked haddock, fillets of plaice, fresh Scottish lobster - at £15 for half, or £25 for a whole beast, served with thermidor or grilled with garlic and lemon butter. Or Dover sole - again, seemingly pricey at £17.95.

But there was enough on the main menu to tempt us. Mark's filetti di sardine arrived with two massive fish, fried and garnished with a salad and black olive and lemon pesto. "I can't ever look at a tin of sardines again," he said. "These are crunchy, light and crisp and the fish taste is subtle."

My father opted for the oyster mushroom soup and was confronted with a large bowl of smooth, delicate broth along with a generous helping of warm ciabatta.

I was quite surprised when my sinfonia di salmone arrived. The menu said it included salmon smoked, salmon poached in mayonnaise, tartare - er, not nice - as well as hot, smoked, marinated salmon in orange and lime juice and all with a creamy dill dressing.

A massive plate arrived with little bits of everything, some bits better than others. Nevertheless, it was generous, leaving me - with the expanding waistline - wondering whether I'd made a mistake.

Frankly, that's not easy in an Italian restaurant.

Another thing that's not easy is selecting wine. Naturally, the list of Italian wines is mind-bendingly big, reds ranging from £10.95 to £27.95 a bottle and whites from £10.95 to £25.95. The rest of the world? No competition. A couple of Chilean or Australian reds, plus a token Spanish and French selection ranged between £13.45 and £23.45 while whites, priced £9.95 to £21.50 were sourced from Australia, Germany and New Zealand. Sparkling wine started at £8.95 a bottle up to £85 for a special bottle of Dom Perignon.

Our 1996 Barolo was light and fruity, dry and smooth with a hint of liquorice. Perfectly acceptable and complementary to our meat dishes. These were rather special - and fruity. Mark's petto d'amitra all'oriental turned out to be breast of duck marinated in sherry, soy sauce, garlic and honey, roasted pink and set in a rocket and coriander salad drenched with orange, apricot and coriander coulis.

He commented: "It's lean and not fatty and I like that. The fruity sauce also complements the taste of the duck and I think you need that slight acidity. It's a little on the cool side, though. Both Delia and Jamie say you should allow meat to relax after cooking, but this might have fallen asleep as it's rather cold."
My filetto d'agnello in carozza was delightful, if served rather too rare for my liking. The lamb fillets were topped with a piquant apricot mustard crust and were set in an apricot and orange sauce. Again, beautifully light and fruity, which was a perfect match for lamb.

My father's choice of pollo aronico - chicken breasts served in a ham and orange sauce - kept him happy, with a plentiful offering of chicken.

The vegetables of the day - carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, French beans, courgettes and pototoes - were served separately and were mouth-blisteringly hot, al dente and a miniature work of art on a plate. And surprise, surprise. We still had room for desserts, something not to be missed in an Italian restaurant.

It was something of a chocolate overload, though: mousse, ice cream, any combination, virtually.

My father sounded slightly disparaging when his chocolate brulee arrived in a dish the size of a tea cup. But here was a chocolate mousse, served with chocolate sauce, topped with a crisp chocolate shell, cream and grated chocolate. Once he cracked the shell, he had enough chocolate to pretend he'd combined his Christmas and Easter intake all into one hour.

Mark had his favourite coffee ice cream, along with what he described as a "brilliantly rich" chocolate offering, while I eschewed my favourite sticky toffee pudding, even Cointreau and orange ice cream, to plump for cassata siciliana.

Oh dear, damned diets! How can I reconcile three gym sessions a week with a virtual house-brick of tutti frutti ice cream laced with strega, topped with chocolate ice cream and finished with a layer of almond ice cream laced with Amaretto liqueur, served with whipped cream and crushed amaretti?

The tutti frutti ice cream could have been slightly less frosty - hard lumps of fruit are not nice - but this was quite devilishly divine and I want more. Now.

A couple of leisurely cups of freshly made coffee followed while we pondered over the eclectic range of background music - everything from Gypsy Kings (honest!) to 10cc.

But this was a great evening in a friendly, refined atmopshere. Pay it a visit and just imagine the Italian sunshine - even in wintry West Kirby.

DETAILS: Scognamiglio's, Ristorante Italiano, 34-36 Banks Road, West Kirby. Tel: 0151-625 7579.

Open: Daily, except Sunday, 6pm. Last orders 10pm. Booking advised later in week.

Ambience: Refined, genteel, warm and welcoming.

Disabled access: No problems. All on the flat with easy access to toilets.

Value for money: Some dishes appeared pricey but for this quality cuisine it's good value.

Choice of menu: Extensive, with mind-boggling wine list.

Smoking: Allowed but smoke-free when we went.


Sardines: £4.95
Soup: £2.90
Sinfonia di salmone: £6.95
Chicken: £8.95
Duck: £10.95
Lamb: £10.95
Vegetables: £5.55
Sweets: £11.85
Coffees: £3.00
Wine: £16.95
Drinks: £4.70

Total: £87.


David Holmes
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