Paolo Tullio's Review
Once upon a time it was easy to find an Italian restaurant outside of
Italy. All you had to do was look for a red and white check table-cloth
and straw-covered Chianti flasks with candles stuck in them. It's harder
to spot them that way now; ever since the advent of the River Cafe, an
Italian restaurant can be an architect-designed food-consuming ambience,
where brushed steel, smoked glass and hard surfaces are decoratively miles
away from a traditional trattoria.
Between these two extremes of decor there are Italian restaurants that
are neither retro nor post-post-modern: they are simply stuck in a time
warp. Walking into Caesar's in Dame Street is a bit like entering a time-machine
- you are instantly whisked back to a dining room that would have been
the height of fashion in a provincial hotel in the sixties. Huge mirrors,
sconces with red lamp-shades, a dado rail with brown anaglypta paper underneath,
an indeterminately patterned red carpet, and tables, laid out in rows
like soldiers, decorated with pink napkins folded into fan shapes.
First impressions were poor. There was rubbish at the front door and
on entering, a strong smell of cooking pervading the room - probably because
the kitchen door was permanently open. This is not something I particularly
like - I prefer to smell only what I'm about to eat rather than everyone
else's food. However, this was tempered by the immediate arrival of a
waiter who greeted us and showed us to a table. Menus came quickly, as
did the wine list and bread rolls. This was a harbinger of things to come:
throughout our meal the service was impeccable.
While looking at the menu and wine list I ordered a glass of the house
white. I was offered an opportunity to taste it which I declined, since
I would normally expect a house wine to be palatable if unremarkable.
I should have tasted it first. It was probably the most unpleasant white
wine to reach my palate in years - but more of this later.
I was a little uncertain at this point that I wanted to stay and while
my companion went to the loo I considered various lies and excuses that
could explain our leaving. When she returned she informed me that the
loos were clean, but profoundly utilitarian. She was not over-impressed
either by the cracked lino on the stairs leading down to them. We stared
silently at one another, the unspoken question being shall we go or not
- but eventually inertia overcame the urge for action and we remained
The menu in Caesar's is mostly Italian, but there are other dishes available.
We decided to try an Italian meal; that's to say an antipasto, a pasta
and then a meat course. In Italy pasta is never a main course, it's a
starter and consequently the portions are not large. If we were to do
as we planned, then on the face of it we had a gargantuan meal ahead.
Our professional and helpful waiter made it easy. We could have an antipasto
between us, half portions of pasta and then our main course. Perfect.
For pasta my companion chose the Roman speciality, spaghetti aglio, olio
e pepperoncino while I chose spaghetti alla carbonara. To follow we both
had veal dishes; my companion veal Parmigiana and me saltimbocca alla
Being an Italian, I occasionally I get the urge to eat Italian food.
I also have that very Italian trait: strong opinions on how classical
Italian dishes should be prepared. The antipasto arrived, two plates covered
with mortadella, prosciutto and salami with an egg mayonnaise in the middle.
As well as this there was a ramekin of olives, pickled peppers and mushrooms.
I wondered had our order been misunderstood. 'No,' said our waiter, 'that's
just one antipasto divided into two. We like to be generous.' All of the
ingredients were of good quality - it was a reviving taste of Italy.
When the pasta arrived the first thing that I noticed was that it was
perfectly cooked. Precisely and exactly 'al dente'. My companion's aglio
e olio was superb - as good as I've ever tasted. It's a simple dish, but
an easy one to get wrong. The balance of garlic, chilli pepper and oil
was just right. My carbonara was quite simply awful: the sauce had the
consistency and the effect of glue. The spaghetti were almost impossible
to eat, since the strands were stuck together and were parted only by
dint of determination and some rather inelegant forkwork.
When the veal dishes arrived I had a couple of quibbles. Saltimbocca
is a traditional Roman dish; thin slices of veal folded to envelop a slice
of prosciutto and a leaf of fresh sage, cooked with a white wine sauce.
Sprinklings of dried sage may give a similar taste, but it's not the same
as a fresh leaf. It may have been there, but I couldn't find the Parma
A Parmigiana, as it name suggests, contains parmesan. Traditionally it
is made with sliced aubergines, whereas here slices of veal took their
place. A good tomato sauce and plenty of real mozzarella, but no taste
of Parmesan. I quibble this because the main courses in Caesar's are not
cheap. They appear to be at first, all the veal dishes cost £11.95,
but everything else is extra - £1.95 for potatoes and for each vegetable
that you order. Adding potatoes and two vegetables brings the main course
to nearly £18 and at that price you have a right to expect the best.
What was clear was that many people came to Caesar's for just for one
course. People arrived long after us and left well before us. Maybe they're
right; you can eat a well-made plate of pasta and have a glass of wine
for under a tenner, which is fair value. You get music too; we were serenaded
by a pianist whose repertoire was entirely in keeping with the decor's
A bottle of Salice Salentino Riserva, a big and fruity Italian red, kept
our meal company. No dessert, but a good, strong espresso finished our
dinner. When the bill came our waiter said 'I noticed you didn't drink
your white wine, so I haven't charged for it.' It's an example of what
makes good service: paying attention to details. The excellent service
went a long way towards making this a better evening than my first impressions
or the food promised. Excluding the wine our bill came to £46.