Much is said these days of gentrification; the process by which overlooked and undervalued areas are upgraded, often by incomers. This has long been going on on the mainland and beyond. Unfashionable boroughs of London and even New York have incrementally been improved by the rising tide of hipsters, artisans and other investors (and sometimes not without controversy).
On the Isle of Wight, we’re joining in too – just look at the ascent of Ventnor. And in East Cowes the parish’s improvements began with the arrival of that proto-hipster, the bearded and (supposedly) pierced Prince Albert and his bride Queen Victoria with their considerable remodelling of the Osborne estate. Alas, at the same time, the town’s planned areas of grand houses, groves and parks was put on hold due to a lack of finances. Other proposed investments have suffered similar hiccups over the years.
The latest plans suggest once again that East Cowes may become an attractive destination with shops, restaurants and cafes. In the meantime, as the strategists draw up yet more proposals (perhaps they’d like to dust off the uncompleted plans of Victoria’s era?) some business folks have already taken matters into their own hands.
Down in the town, the home of the erstwhile and much-missed Mrs Jones’ Tea Depot has undergone quite a transformation. Gone are the chintzy armchairs, wartime doodads and Andrews Sisters soundtrack. In their place are jazzy tunes and achingly-trendy hard surfaces: exposed brick walls, wooden panelling and tiles. But this is no half-arsed scrape-down refurbishment. The interior changes have been quite substantial; the kitchen has been opened up, the window and door upgraded. A big interior glass wall acts as a partial lobby, flanked on the other side by a vast safe – itself a hefty artefact of the venue’s even earlier incarnation as a bank. Upcycled foglights and bulkhead lamps add to the industrial chic.
Chatting to the waitress – who recognised us from her days at Olivo (that’s Ohleevoh, people) – we remarked on the similarity to her previous place of employment. If Prego can emulate the long-term success of Olivo then it will do well indeed. As Matt settled into his chapel chair, we nibbled complimentary olives and studied the menu. Earlier that same week, we’d enjoyed a soft sourdough pizza at Franco Manca in Brighton. As it happens, you don’t have to visit London-By-The-Sea to experience this alternative to traditional doughy pizza – it was here in East Cowes.
The menu at Prego is pretty standard Italian: a good range of pastas and quite a comprehensive choice of pizzas made with their own sourdough. Calzone piccante was Matt’s choice: this big pizza pocket enveloped a steaming mass of cheese, tomato and spicy meat. Tearing it open eagerly he was concerned the generous allowance of sauce was going to run off the cute wooden pizza board. It didn’t, because he wasn’t going to let any of this excellent liquor go to waste. The sourdough crust was delightfully soft and distinctively enjoyable – this is a step up from regular pizza dough.
Pizza Prego £11.95
Calzone picante £11.50
Rucola salad £3.50
Sweet waffle £5
Apple juice £1.85
Peroni x 2 £7.50
Cat enjoyed her house pizza, the Prego – so large it barely fit on its wooden paddle. It was suitably gnarly-edged in a pleasingly rustic way. As well as its mozzarella and goat cheese, Cat also accepted a shaving or two of Parmesan and a decent dribble of garlic oil. It was a pretty tasty meal. The moist and cheesy pizza enhanced by a rucola side-salad of rocket and cherry tomatoes, yet more cheese, plus balsamic dressing.
Cat was facing into the restaurant and, looking around at the wooden furniture and the tower of wine bottles nestled behind a cage in the old chimney breast, she thought that she and Matt could easily be in Brighton. No, make that London. Hell, it could practically be New York! The service was on a par with mainland restaurants; friendly, informed and efficient. The environment ticked all of the right boxes and the food was excellent.
We decided to have pudding, just to ensure that our pizzas weren’t a lucky hit. Rest assured, the desserts were equally as fab. Cat’s morello cherry cheesecake was delicious, with a hint of almonds and decorated with artfully drizzled chocolate sauce. Matt ate a fresh and tasty sweet waffle with toffee apple sauce and ice cream.
Finishing off with coffee and and tea, we considered the fortunes of East Cowes. Despite the (very) early disappointments of the Victorian era when the royal promise of a fashionable garden town faded, there have been pockets of development. The demolition of East Cowes Castle and the creation of housing on the site and, more recently the marina, are all contributing to the slow rise of the town. The arrival of Waitrose was quite a coup but additional promised development money withered away with the last government. Meanwhile Red Funnel’s plans are still being finalised.
While high-level vacillation continues, it’s up to The People to take matters into their own hands. In Prego, we are delighted to see that its backers have enough faith in the viability of East Cowes to make a considerable investment. We would certainly suggest that Prego is as much as a destination as John Lewis, and we expect more to follow. Maybe the new floating bridge will become the Island’s own Staten Island Ferry? In the meantime, Prego demonstrates that small agile independent businesses have the flexibility to enhance a community, and that economic development is not solely the preserve of large multinationals.
This is the full-length version of the review that first appeared in the Isle of Wight County Press.
- Fabulous interior
- Delicious food
- Great service
- Wooden paddles not great for runny sauce!
- Upper edge of pizza prices