At last, we're back on High Street proper. We're not somewhere else, we're not having take away, drinking beer or shopping at the market. We're doing what we set out to do, which is to enjoy and record the restaurants of Northcote and Thornbury.
Arriving at I Saluti also means we are getting ever closer to the glorious summit of Rucker's Hill, and will soon have to cross the street, descend and start heading north.
I Saluti celebrates its wood-fired pizza oven by literally raising it on a pedestal. A cheerful space with perky, good-humoured staff, it's a bit more casual than its almost-neighbour, Cafe Bedda, but just as warm and inviting. Racket, but chipper racket; not the sort that makes me realise how old my hearing has become.
traveling salesman problem, we ended up moving at least once, but still ended up with Al and Em feeling they'd been isolated at the junior end of the table. Both fiddled with phones. Thus is the way of the world.
We all opted for pizza, pasta or risotto, and all were pretty damn happy with what they received. The pizzas all had the right balance of thin/crispy/chewy crust without overdoing the top layer. I'm a bread fiend when it comes to pizza and there's nothing that turns me off pizza more than the "too much ain't enough" approach to cheese and foamy, dull bread. But these were perfect - mine was mostly Mediterranean vegetables with hot salami and a chewy, thin base. This is closest I get to a vegetarian pizza. I take the Bill Bailey, post-modernist approach to vegetarianism: I eat meat, but I do it ironically. And these were worth the irony.
F and Al were happy with their seafood risotto and Lis thought the chorizo pasta was pretty fine.
Dessert, alas, was a mixed fare. The bread and butter pudding, if it was bread, was the sort of bread where the use-by date on the packet says, "don't worry - you won't live that long." Although the stodge was interleaved with dried fruit and drizzled with a good custard, it was still stodge.
And when I say "dried fruit", I mean the brand-free boxes of mixed dried fruit you get to make a boiled fruit cake. Sultanas? Check. Currants? Yup. Peel? Oh yes (but never enough). Cherries? Well..... There are at least lumpettes of cheerfully coloured jelly disguised as cherries - that's close enough, surely?
On the other hand, Em and the Wubbleyou shared a chocolate and pistachio pizza that looked pretty fine, and A's panna cotta was perfect - judiciously sweet and the right balance of lightness and girth.
Yes, the food was great, and the atmosphere and staff were warm and friendly. But what really set the night apart; what really made it special was the company. Oh, and the weird hands. Weird stuff.
So if there was a lesson from the night, it was that taking friends makes the food even better. It seems pretty obvious in hindsight, but it's important to remember that, although it might seem like I'm writing about the food, it's the night that's far more important. And this night was fun. Conversation that never waltzed but occasionally pogo'd; company that was friendly but never demanding; and food that didn't demand respect but earned it anyway.
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