2 August 2013


Food ✪✪ 
Ambience ✪✪✪ 
Service ✪ 

89 Grey Street 
NE1 6EG 
0191 230 2148 


Mon to Sat: 8am - 11pm 
Sun: 9am - 10.30pm 

Carluccio’s empire has finally reached the desolate North East. 

Newcastle must be the last city in the land to get a branch of this chain. You can’t go anywhere without spotting the ubiquitous blue and white branding. There are three in Manchester, and five in Dubai. There’s even one in Istanbul. Now they’ve taken over the prime location of the old NatWest bank in Grey Street. 

It’s a clever concept: you think you’re buying into the vision of the genial white-haired celebrity chef, but the Carluccio machine isn’t actually owned by Antonio Carluccio at all. He’s just a consultant who gets wheeled out to openings to sign the books they sell in the deli.

The chain was created by his now ex-wife Priscilla, and began as a single deli serving breakfast and light lunches. It’s expanded rapidly to become Middle England’s favourite food chain, but it’s actually owned by a Middle Eastern conglomerate – hence the branches in Dubai. 

Its British management team is run by a clever chap called Simon Kossoff. He knows how to pack them in and sell them not very cheap. 

Expensive lemon-infused olive oil, balsamic vinegar, pasta and dried mushrooms are sold in the deli, along with bread and some of the kitchen’s dishes. The shop supports the restaurant’s turnover during quiet periods. It doesn’t rank against proper delis, like Mmm, across the road in the Grainger Market, which has a much better range of Italian produce. 

How does it rate as an eaterie? I wouldn’t normally review a restaurant so soon after opening but, as scores of these have launched over the past few years, I reckoned everything would be sorted by Wednesday lunchtime. It was packed. 

I started with ‘lemon spritz’, a cocktail of lemoncello and lemonade with a splash of Prosecco. It was refreshing, accompanied by good marinated olives and the restaurant’s signature breadbasket with authentic Italian breads, including some delicious fruit bread with caraway seeds. That all came to £11.75. 

The menu is comfortable rustic-Italian – tuna fishcakes, panzanella salad, the usual range of pastas, sea bass, fish stew, and some daily specials. Mrs Diner sampled the fixed price menu – £9.95 for 2 courses – while I was more ambitious with the specials. 

Mrs D had chargrilled garlic focaccia to start, with penne alla puttanesca, and I ordered a half-portion of the risotto special, followed by lamb steak with caponata. Our sophisticated youngest child chose spinach and ricotta ravioli from the £6.95 kid’s menu. 

The focaccia was light as a feather and smothered with garlic, but that’s all – it needed a little sauce or dip on the side. My zucchini and gorgonzola risotto was creamy, and glistened properly, but had been hanging around for a while. It was garnished meanly with a tiny strip of half-burned courgette, and the gorgonzola had made it so salty that I ordered a glass of house red wine. 


Without asking, they brought me a large glass. It was rough and cheap. Which is a pretty good description of Mrs Diner’s puttanesca sauce. It was overwhelmed by olives.

Puttanesca is not traditional Italian – it hails from the 1960s – but we tend to like it spicy, with sweetness from garlic, piquancy from capers and tomatoes, and saltiness from olives and anchovy. Instead, this was bitter olive sauce, with tinned, unreduced tomatoes: it was unpleasant. 

Not as nasty as my lamb, though. For £14.50 I expected a proper entrée, with garnish and maybe a vegetable. What arrived was a solitary slice of leg and a spoonful of cold caponata, straight from the fridge. The lamb was bleating and oozed blood. 

Now I like my lamb pink, but this was raw. There was no accompaniment, no greenery. It was barely seared, uncooked flesh. Returned to the kitchen (from which no apologies emerged) it came back medium rare but devoid of flavour. The lamb was of poor quality and had been neither marinated nor seasoned. 

The caponata was worse: it’s supposed to be sweet and sour, with chunks of quality creamy aubergine, but this had far too much vinegar. It attacked the senses with as much subtlety as an Italian politician on heat. 

The only success was Junior Diner’s ravioli, which was homemade and delicious. The service was so slow, taking nearly 2 hours for 2 courses (our waiter said the kitchen was having an off day), there was no time for dessert. 

Junior Diner enjoyed excellent chocolate gelati, while we tackled a bill for £65, presented without apology for either the delay or the poor cooking. 

[Carluccio's head office has responded to this review, and to the criticisms from readers, both in the newspaper, on this site, and on Twitter.  See Comments below]


  1. It's interesting that the North East twittersphere was almost hysterical with excitement at the prospect of Carluccios opening. After all, it's yet another chain place, albeit with pretensions to sit at the upper end of the chain market. I guess what I read into this is that we're struggling for really decent restaurants: you can probably count them in single figures, and with the exception of the excellent Rasa, they're all independents. What do we need to do to encourage the very good chains or some quality independents to open here? Until that happens, I suspect the North East will continue to accept the sort of quality you describe because there's little to challenge it or (to use a horrid phrase) "raise the bar".

  2. I had a similar experience today (3 August)- poor, soulless, unapologetic service and average food. We deserve better but is it our fault for accepting poor food and service? Dont expect these reviews will make any difference...

  3. Unfortunately I took my boss there on the same evening of your visit - the place was packed, but there were massive gaps between the taking of orders, the serving of starters and then even bigger gaps from the starters to the mains. The starters were tasty enough but no better than average, but the huge disappointment was the veal - poor quality meat, overcooked and tough enough to use as a sole on your shoe. Staff were apologetic and we did get a reduction in the bill, but it will be a while before I ever venture back (if at all) and especially as Piccolino's on the Quayside is a much better bet.

  4. I have received the following email from Sarah Murray, Chief Operations Officer of Carluccio's Ltd

    Dear Secret Diner,

    We read your review last month and I can see that it has generated some similarly negative comments which is of course disappointing.

    I can tell you that we have been working very hard since we opened to ensure that we make a good impression and I know that initially we have really struggled to do this which has resulted in upsetting far too many people.

    We have been overwhelmed by the response to the brand arriving in Newcastle, which is fantastic – but of course no excuse for coming up short.

    Since you wrote the review I believe we have made massive progress and we are well on the way to delivering the standards of food quality and service that we pride ourselves in.

    We are continuing to support the team in Newcastle with additional managers and chefs as it is essential we ingrain the standards. I hope you will be inclined to give us another try in the future when I hope that everyone’s hard work will be evident,

    Yours sincerely,

    Sarah Murray
    Carluccio's Limited
    35 Rose Street
    WC2E 9EB