19 October 2013
Mon-Thu 12 - 2pm and 5.30 - 9pm
Fri - Sat 12 - 2pm and 5.30 - 9.30pm
[*WARNING: Change of chef since review - awaiting re-review]
We didn’t plan to visit Vercelli at all. We were in Hexham to try The Thai House, situated right next door, which had been recommended by several of my Twitter followers, but it was unexpectedly closed.
Looking at the menu, Vercelli looks like one of those predictable lasagne and pizza joints you get all over the region, the kind of place I’ve criticised severely in the past, upsetting locals and management in the process. When will they learn that Italian cooking has moved on since the 1970s?
However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. This restaurant is a gem.
It was also virtually empty. A barn of a room, around 80 empty covers brooding in the gloom, it wasn’t remotely enticing on a sunny lunchtime. It does have a smart new cocktail bar, done out in grey and silver with a silver piano – very Milan. But the main restaurant needs people to give it atmosphere, and probably a few hundred candles. When Mrs Diner and I were asked which table we’d like, we gazed with sinking hearts at the dark ocean of vacancy.
We suggested near the door because we needed to check on our dog, waiting patiently in the car. At which point the owner, a warm, welcoming lady called Louise Brison, who has an Italian father, rushed over and said, “Bring your dog into the garden”.
She brought us a dog bowl and a plate of fresh homemade bread, and sat us all on a delightfully sunny patio, next to the chef’s herb garden, beside which stood the chef himself.
He’s called David Lucas, and he may not be Italian, but he is certainly a fanatic, with a collection of classic Italian cookbooks. I suspect he might be frustrated (though he’s too polite to say) by what most people expect from our local Italian restaurants.
Take the humble carbonara. Despite what some cookbooks claim, Italians don’t use cream, yet apparently many of David’s customers expect it.
The creaminess of a real carbonara should come from the mixture of pecorino cheese and raw eggs, which are barely cooked by the heat of the pasta. It’s basically a dry sauce. OK, we said, no cream: feed us proper Italian. And off he went to make some fresh pasta.
We started with meatballs and mushrooms. While the fungi were wild, garlicky, woody and generally outstanding, the meatballs were monumental, baked in a rich marinara sauce under a molten glacier of mozzarella.
How is it that so many British Italian restaurants can’t make a decent meatball? The simple answer is: not enough fat. Italian meatballs, with finely minced beef, must also contain the fattiest pork the chef can find, to give texture and flavour.
David Lucas has gone one better. I detected the distinctive taste of peperoncini, and then realised that these meatballs contained 'nduja, the fiery, fatty, spreadable pork paste from Calabria. To a meatball, combined with caramelised onion and parsley, it offers a spicy, rounded completeness that would make Tony Soprano cry.
These meatballs, probably the best I’ve had in the region, cost only £5.95 on the à la carte menu, and £3.95 on the two-course lunch and early evening offerings. They should be queuing for these all the way to Hexham Abbey.
We followed with two excellent pasta dishes, the classic carbonara, and some baby shrimp, sautéed in an anchovy-rich buttery sauce with spinach, both offered with fresh, firm, fettucini.
I was so surprised by the quality of the cooking and the friendliness of the place, I’m ashamed to say I feared it must have been a fluke, so a few weeks later I went back to try it again.
Again it was nearly empty, and this time I wanted to catch the kitchen out, so I ordered scallops with pancetta, and pan-seared chicken breast and wild mushroom fricassee, both with celeriac puree.
The scallops were spot on – that is seared and buttery – and chicken that was moist and perfectly seasoned, though the mushrooms weren’t wild. I had a side order of Mediterranean vegetables that included roasted tomatoes, red and yellow bullhorn peppers, courgettes, salsify and half a whole roasted garlic for just £2.50.
Given the expertise and confidence coming from this kitchen, the menu is surprisingly limited. Apart from pasta and pizza, there are just a few steaks, a lamb shank, pork fillet and cod. There’s an even less ambitious wine list, though the house Sangiovese is perfectly decent.
Perhaps David Lucas should be allowed to stretch his wings further – he is very good indeed. I guess Vercelli must be well patronised in the evening, but if you’re stuck in Hexham for lunch, I can’t recommend it more highly.
Location: Hexham, Northumberland NE46 1PQ, UK