Written by Naomi Boxall
Pepe Nero is tucked behind the Intercontinental Hotel – on a street that runs parallel to the river – replacing Hacienda Mexicana. It´s a corner restaurant – and on blustery days, the doors will blow open if you´re not careful. But you´ll be greeted with an effusive smile and shown to your preferred choice of smoking or non-smoking sections. Below the restaurant (which is slightly below street level) is a larger room with sufficient seating (easily) for 45 additional persons. Good to know if you´re looking for a private room.
The menu is rather traditional Italian fare: starters that seem mainly comprised of slivers (parma ham, carpaccio – beef or salmon etc.) of goodies, followed by first courses (gnocchi, spaghetti, rigatoni, lasagne – and minestrone soup), meat dishes (entrecote, chicken and veal), salads (all but two containing fish or meat), pizzas (nothing new under the sun), calzone and panuozzo. Vegetarians are in for an uninspiring time with variants on Greek or caprese salads, and, if lucky, perhaps some aubergine, zucchini or artichokes.
A basket of freshly homemade bread was brought to our table while we awaited our starter. There was no dipping crockery with which to create a puddle of balsamicy-oily goodness for our bread – and the waiter seemed a bit confused when we asked for such. It was just as well the bread had arrived though, so my friend had something to nibble on when the incorrect starter was brought and returned to the kitchen by our slightly vacuous but friendly server. Across the table, though, slurping noises were apparently evident. The parma ham with melon starter was sumptious, perfectly ripe and juicy rock melon nestled under a layer of salty-sweet almost transparent ham. The salmon carpaccio, when it did arrive, was worth the wait. Delicately flavoured wild salmon underneath a sprinkling of rucola, with the option of adding lemon juice to your individual taste preference. There was enough for both of us to try one another´s dish without feeling aggrieved at handing over the plate; excellent value for money.
Sadly, though, the promise of the starters was somewhat let down by the mains we chose. A Quattro Stagioni pizza arrived (lagging behind the lasagne al forno by a good 3 minutes) and left us both ambivalent. Though the bottom was browned in the requisite patches, the dough seemed either uncooked or unfinished in some way, and had too much of a yeasty taste. The passata topping, though good, was insufficient to rescue the neither-thick-enough-nor-thin-enough base. Disappointing. The lasagne al forno wasn´t much better, suffering from under use of herbs, and over use of pasta. Both dishes seemed stodgy, resulting in a distinctly ‘yawn´ verdict from us both.
Under the (misguided) impression that, “well, starters and desserts are usually where chefs excel ” we pushed on. A torte della nonna and torta di ameretto arrived at the table simultaneously. Disappointingly, the Tuscan version of the cheesecake was more like a scone baked by someone with a mistrust of baking, so it fit neatly into the ‘dreary Florentine pastry´ category. Similarly, the Amaretto tart, which should have been flourless, was basically a bread-like cheesecake base topped with almonds blended into cream and sprinkled with shop-purchased biscotti. Give them both a miss. Give the coffees a miss as well, unless you like your latte made with UHT milk and your espresso burnt.
The décor of Pepe Nero´s is very neutral, and when illuminated so brightly, comes across stark. Parlour palms in every corner do little to create a cosy vibe. Don´t let your astigmatism-riddled friend walk down the steps unaided; horizontal markings within the marble tiles used on the steps create a successful optical illusion. As with so many places, there´s a weird aluminium factory tube hung from the ceiling that went nowhere and seemingly did very little – begging the eternal question: but why? The artwork on the walls, however, was pleasant, possibly not sourced from Ikea. The toilets have a novel approach to washing one´s hands; while the cubicles themselves are divided by gender, the washbasin is a bit of a glory hole for hands that are rinsed under a waterfall. The clientele on Monday night included Czech-speaking families, hot Swedish lads, be-sports-jacketed Italian tourists and a group of those of a pensionable age – also travellers if their footwear and attire can be used to identify.
All in all, I was underwhelmed. I felt that Pepe Nero could do much better with a dimmer switch, a different pizza base recipe, someone who has tastebuds testing food in the kitchen, and scrapping the dessert menu to pay more attention to the mains. It´s certainly not somewhere I´d take a date, but I´d take a friend there for starters and breads before heading on elsewhere. But honestly? It´s highly unlikely I´ll bother with a second visit.