Every town has one. No, not an idiot – they are apocryphally the preserve of villages – but an Italian restaurant. You know the place; it’s been part of the street scene since the days when the post office was operational, not simply a historic landmark.
Shanklin has the delightful Pavarotti’s; Ryde’s Michelangelo’s has been serving Tirollean-style meals since there was a Tourist Information Centre welcoming visitors to the gateway to the Isle of Wight; and Cowes has Tonino’s. How, in nearly two decades of reviewing, have we neglected this Shooter’s Hill stalwart?
Some of this has to do with Kieron Lanning (ask us about it one day), but mostly due to our heads being turned elsewhere. But finally our faces – and our empty stomachs – were pointing in the right direction, so in we popped.
Like the long-mourned La Scala in Sandown, and Carisbrooke’s venerable Valentino’s, the walls of Tonino’s are textured with the obligatory artex. The remaining walls are glass, creating a light and airy frontage with a view of the stunning Jolliffe’s facade opposite.
Unsurprisingly, Cowes is not exempt from ‘Cozzie Livs’ (cost of living crisis); we were a bit taken aback by the price of some of the cocktails but, like all decent restaurants, we could quench our thirsts for free via a carafe of tap water. This arrived at the table along with bread and balsamic, on which we honed our appetites while we perused the rest of the menu.
There was an extraordinarily imaginative range of dishes, including crevette, smoked salmon and mango salad; prawns with spinach and Isle of Wight black garlic and coconut oil; and “crazy water” bream fillet in broth.
Having given our order, we snapped complimentary grissini; nibbling on the breadsticks while playing Cowes bingo. On this particular evening we only scored one measly point for ruddy-faced and red trousered off-duty yachties. Perhaps they were affected by cozzie livs too?
From the specials menu, we had chosen the fish of the day; a whole sea bass presented in a foil parcel. Steam exuded the aroma of peperonata sauce; a new one to us, made from reduced red bell peppers and olive oil. The fish was under a haphazard lattice of samphire stalks, almost like it was swimming through the glasswort. The sea bass was incredibly tasty, retaining all the flavours in the delicious juice and its flesh separated easily from its many bones (a small plate would have been a welcome depository for the unwanted bits of the fish). We enjoyed a condimenty combo of ingredients; salt from the crisp samphire and pepper from the sauce adding to the fish’s intrinsic flavour.
Scallop linguine £17.95
Sea bass £28.95
Sicilian cheesecake £7.95
If that wasn’t enough, the vegetables were served in delicious teriyaki, ginger and soy bean sauce, contributing a subtle Asian vibe to the dish. Meals are sometimes pushed in a certain taste direction, and everything is simply spice. This had a balanced fusion of flavours.
Our linguine con canestrelli was another of Tonino’s many innovative seafood dishes. We enjoyed the decent array of buttery scallops presented in a creamy sauce, with a hint of vermouth providing a sweet note. There were plenty of fresh garden peas, and the asparagus spears were just the right side of floppy.
Some ethnic eateries have a mismatch between mains and desserts, but in a good Italian restaurant, the quality of both is usually guaranteed – and Tonino’s is no exception. Sicilian lemon and mascarpone cheesecake was sparky and rich, with a conspicuous citrusy fragrance. The garnish of tiny lemon wedges looked attractive, but they were alas too small to squeeze!
The classic tiramisu was nicely presented, dusted with icing sugar snow and chocolate crumbs. This homemade trifle was really dense, and all the better for it.
We were delighted with our meal at Tonino’s. Its longevity on Cowes High Street bears testament to its excellence. The service was friendly and charming and we were blown away by the creative menu. Well done, the Isle of Wight, once again showing us that there are still decent venues to be discovered.
This is the full-length version of the review first published in the Isle of Wight County Press.
- Extraordinarily imaginative range of dishes
- Interesting vegetables
- Friendly and charming service