Montpelier Vale, Blackheath SE3
I walked past this place on many an occasion, assuming that it was one of those chain pasta restaurants that seem to be everywhere, and with so many one-offs in Blackheath it seemed a shame to go to a chain.
It was only when visiting parents needed to be lunched recently that we actually went inside and I realised that it is itself a one-off – and not bad at all at that.
It’s a very modern place on several different levels, and because it was a Saturday lunchtime and therefore very busy, we were sat near the back which was a little bit dark and cramped. I suspect that that particular setting would be better in the evenings when you’re more after “cosy.” For a place with such a small frontage, it is surprisingly large inside. I understand that there’s also a function room, but I didn’t see it.
The menu is unashamedly Italian, and none the worse for that. I adore Italian food, but it’s not particularly easy to get really great classic cooking round our way. Bella Vista does pretty well at filling the gap and its prices are not outrageous either. I had the melanzane as a starter, mainly because I have difficulty refusing aubergine in pretty much any form. It was juicy and tomato-ey, though I always forget how rich it is. Other party members had some brisk bruschetta (crisp and flavoursome, and probably a better lunchtime choice) and the prosciutto, which disappeared at an alarming rate.
I confess I continued to feed my aubergine addiction with a fairly unforgivable choice of Penne Siciliana for my main course (so shoot me) which was lovely, though as I ate it, I realised that its richness had just prohibited a pudding. Nice big portions and plenty of yummy sauce. There is a propensity towards cream sauces on the menu, but plenty of other choices too. The same virtuous person who had contented themselves with the lovely bruschetta had some creamy mushroom risotto and declared themselves very happy (though one can’t always believe parents being taken out by their offspring.) I forget what everyone else had (damn, I’ll never get a job as restaurant critic now) but everyone seemed pretty ok with it. The wine was serviceable but frankly I don’t recall anything else about it.
If I have one criticism it’s one that tends to be universal these days. They have, in my humble opinion, squeezed one too many tables into the space, making it ever so slightly cramped. We’re so used to this happening in restaurants now that we’re beginning to become inured to it. I am only glad that one the whole the ghastly factory-esque seating patterns used in Wagamama chains have not really been adopted yet. (Don’t get me wrong – I actually like Wagamama’s food, but I always end up next to someone wearing a dozen outer garments, who has a small colony of overflowing carrier bags growing around their feet and who cannot eat without splaying their elbows into my face.)
But back to Bella Vista. I am sad enough to rather miss those old Italian restaurants of the 1970s and 80s – you know – the sort with the red gingham tablecloths, fake Tudor beams and raffia-wrapped wine bottles with candles dripping down them, the sort that used to supply those dry breadsticks in packets while you waited for a virtual bucket of spaghetti bolognese to arrive. The sort where the waiters brought round a giant wooden pepper mill with a suggestive look in their eye. But times move on, and though I have a certain nostalgia for those places (there are still a couple in central London, though sadly both the Pollo and the Centrale are no more) the brisk modern setting of Bella Vista is at least smart and, if I’m totally honest, the food is much better quality.