For those that don’t know, Cambridge is a beautiful city, all pinnacled colleges and cobbled roads along which sit-up-and-beg bicycles trundle under the power of earnest undergraduates.
Unlike the thigh-challenging undulations of the Isle of Wight, there is no need for a multi-geared road hybrid bike for this historic city’s flat thoroughfares. Towering churches rise out of pleasant litter-free city squares with the ubiquitous students’ bikes chained up to every available railing.
Having been turned away from the filled-to-capacity (and unbookable) restaurant juggernaut that is Jamie’s Italian, Matt and Cat went a-hunting for an alternative dinner venue. To be honest, in Cambridge, finding a decent eatery is as easy as spotting a fourteenth-century building, so it wasn’t long before M&C had a new restaurant in their sights. And it was also an Italian.
Eschewing the picture-postcard Kings Parade, Matt and Cat took a table at Stazione, an unprepossessing pavement café adjacent to the city’s market square. Curiously the restaurant did not appear to have any discernible shop front. What it did have was an enclosure constructed out of vast heated umbrellas and low temporary walls; the structure was framed by a riot of scaffolding on the adjacent shoeshop, and the looming modern shopping centre at Lion Yard. The restaurant seemed to be popular and most of the tables under this highway authority-challenging tent were full.
The venue scored points straight away as an Italian waiter greeted Matt and Cat with typical brio and showed them to a table near the musicians. It’s always a bonus to be given a proper welcome; too many places have staff who seem indifferent to arriving diners.
Fegato di vitello £16.50
Half pollo agli soinaci £8.95
Large red wine £4.50
Apple juice £2.25
2 x filter coffee £3.50
Before long, M&C had given their order and were having a friendly contest to see which of them knew the titles of the jazz standards that were being enthusiastically played by the guitar and bass duo. Cat – an encyclopaedic reservoir of jazz and lounge sounds of the mid-twentieth century – beat Matt to ‘Pennies from Heaven’, but he just about scraped in with ‘Take 5’. As they supped their drinks they watched the waiting staff buzz about the restaurant, delivering beverages, making cheeky remarks and generally engaging with their charges. Interestingly, most of the waiters were not college kids working to pay off their student loans but professional servers, including some who most certainly were genuine Italians – and it showed.
Cat’s pollo agli spinaci con gamberi come dice Milano (rather generously translated as chicken breast cooked in white wine sauce topped with king prawns, spinach Milano-style served with Dauphinoise potatoes and red pepper) looked fabulous. The chunky chicken breast was courted by a vast shell-on tiger prawn; both meats layered round a nest of spinach. Some sweet glazed carrots and French beans were alongside with a massive sprig of flat-leaf parsley and the aforementioned potatoes finished the dish. For a half-size portion it was a plentiful meal and Cat thought it was superb. The chicken was perked up by a slightly charred taste, offset by the fabulous creamy sauce. The prawn was a bit of a wrestle so Cat took advice from Matt who urged her on with exhortations to ‘rip its head off’, and the like. Once it had been extracted from its carapace, it turned out to be beautifully soft and a good fishy accompaniment. Cat was entertained to watch a fellow diner and prawn novice who, having gingerly plucked off her prawn’s whiskery head, proceeded to chomp down the crunchy remnants, legs and all!
Matt’s meal, accompanied by a glass of good strong Italian red, was Fegato di vitello fritto, con pure di sedano papa, cipollotti arrosto e salsa alia diavola (pan-fried calves liver with celeriac purée, roast shallots and diavola sauce). Italian speakers will already be smirking, but let M&C assure you that the menu did actually say pure di sedano Papa, “Roasted celery Pope”; not, as one can only assume was intended, pure di sedano rapa, which might have been more appropriate for the offered translation. Certainly the mash that arrived under a duo of calves liver had no taste of the Pontiff about it – celeriac it clearly was, and all the better for it. The devilled sauce turned out to be an excellent fresh chilli concoction which really set off the liver and red wine to a tee. Matt was extremely happy with this boisterous dish.
Surprisingly, Matt and Cat were too full for dessert but did manage to squeeze in a couple of cups of strong earthy Americano, giving their tapping toes renewed vigour. On visiting the restaurant’s facilities which were accessed through a street-level door then down below ‘Optical Express’, Cat found to her surprise that there was actually a smartly-appointed subterranean continuation of the eatery, entirely unoccupied by paying customers but full of staff busy laying out tables and carrying plates to and from the kitchen. Obviously the pavement seating was a great draw and, on a balmy night like the one Matt and Cat visited, the restaurant decamped en masse to the outdoors, leaving the inner tables empty. A very clever idea.
Stazione’s not quite in Cambridge’s picturesque hub and its surroundings are a bit makeshift, but the food and service were exceptional. Matt loved the hearty Italian food, served with such gusto. Also, Cat was delighted to see that most of the main courses were available in half portions. Her experience showed that didn’t mean any compromise on quality and flavour. Heartily recommended.