It sometimes seems that the installation of the eating classes on pavements is the solution to all society’s ills.
With tedious regularity politicians and commentators can be heard praising the ‘café culture’ of the continent – where young couples sit at tables scattered casually around the piazzas, generating economic prosperity by simply being there. Such a perception may be derived more from the comfortable middle-class holiday destinations of politicians and commentators than on any reality – but it doesn’t stop the hankering after this mythical state of café nirvana.
Newport is no different, and in the neatly refurbished Gray’s Walk shopping precinct is a little square, complete with Caffè Isola, which, appropriately, is Italian for Island Cafe.
Matt and Cat stepped into the small, but shiningly clean and new interior one sunny lunchtime. Eschewing the dazzling tables outside they took a seat in the window overlooking Pyle Street. Isola professes to be an Italian coffee and panini bar, and its menu certainly makes an effort, including the usual wraps, rolls and ciabatta, but also a remarkable range of Italian tavola calda. Wikipedia says of Tavola Calda ‘Literally “hot table”, offers pre-made regional dishes ordered from a queue, often served on a tray’. Sounds fascinating, but Matt and Cat didn’t get to try any, as despite Tavola Calda taking up a large part of the menu, apparently it was all eaten except for that regional speciality, ‘Large English Sausage Roll’.
Matt and Cat hesitated over the remaining range of tempting – but more traditional – snacks on offer. Cat even went to enquire of the busy staff behind the counter what the rolls were like on the ‘ciabatta and rolls’ section of the menu. ‘A roll is a ciabatta’ she was told by a patient lady. Simple, really. Your reviewers, unable to choose, decided to buy three snacks and share them out. Two wraps with hoi sin beef and salmon and dill respectively; and a Parma ham and Parmesan ciabatta – or possibly it was a roll. Fresh juice was on offer, and the obliging lady whizzed up apple and carrot juice drinks from fresh ingredients – ideal for a hot afternoon. The whole lot cost about £13.
After a short delay, the food arrived. Matt and Cat tucked in. The generously-packed wraps were tasty and fresh; the ciabatta equally so. Hoi sin beef turned out to be thinly-sliced roast beef with a garnish of hoi sin sauce; and the Parma and Parmesan was a really enjoyable combination, with generous and flavoursome helpings of both the title ingredients. All dishes came with an unexpected and very welcome ration of root vegetable crisps, which were a morish nibble for the lunchtime duo.
The only complaint concerned the lettuce – as is often the case with the crinkly and decorative but somewhat tasteless leaves so beloved of cafés. The lettuce exhibited a crunchiness that went beyond crispness and strayed into gritty. Both diners really enjoyed the fresh fruit juice, though – and for £2 a glass, they should have done.
So good marks for Caffè Isola. Clean, tidy and cheerful. If their menu was perhaps a little more ambitious then their ability to deliver, what was left on offer did not disappoint. Well-made lunchtime snacks were a decent size and tasted great. The fresh drinks were particularly commendable. The prices too were pretty good, and overall the meal was good value, with a notably good price for the food. So if this was café culture, perhaps what our regenerating town centres need is actually caffè culture.
Caffè Isola, Newport