The napkin on my lap looks like the handkerchief of a Victorian chimney sweep, covered in black smudges. I casually wonder what kind of state my chin is in as I slurp up another forkful of the long, thick bucatini that’s heavily slicked with the blackest ink, not caring enough to pause and check.
This cuttlefish and vermouth ragu is full of savoury umami character, with occasional hits of garlic and fennel seed. The handmade pasta is thick and wiry, cooked with confident bite, while the hunks of seafood hiding amongst it are tender and supple – I will the tangle of glossy, inky carb never to end.
Alas – nothing lasts forever. A sentiment that this restaurant’s former resident will attest. In fact, lots of things don’t last half as long as I’d like – namely, every peanut butter milkshake I’ve ever had, Fleabag (I will never stop praying for a third series) and any and all plants that have ever been in my care. Bell’s Diner’s lifespan, while admittedly not infinite, was far longer than any of those, mind. It was the end of an era when it closed down at the beginning of this year after four decades in business, so locals were understandably pretty grieved.
The team behind the ever-popular Pasta Loco on Cotham Hill (and its sister sites, Pasta Ripiena and La Sorella in the city centre), led by Bristolian cousins Dominic Borel and Ben Harvey, swooped in early doors to snap up this famous site, knowing exactly what they were going to do with it; Dom and Ben had long ago fleshed out the concept for the old-school trattoria-style restaurant they’d like to open one day.
Said day came on 29 August this year, when the long-awaited Bianchis unlocked its doors.
Old-school might have been what the team were going for – and you can see it in the polished wood, white-linen clothed tables and smartly bound wine lists – but don’t expect the classic and traditional in every context. The traditionally formatted Italian menu (think antipasti, primi and secondi options) is infused with imagination, contemporary thinking and a little bit of fun.
Back to lunch. I’m eating from the daytime set menu, which is solid value – two courses for £15, three for £19 and four for £24. (In the evening, no main tips over the £16 mark, either, with starters coming in at around £8.)
The aforementioned pasta was preceded by soft and gently spiced salt cod and ’nduja fritelli, primed for scraping up the dollops of silky aioli, and to follow it arrives onglet. The hunks of beef sport dark crusts and bright claret interiors, and a whisper of smokiness deepens the flavour of this already delicious cut. It’s plated up with a punchy, vibrant salsa verde, super-crisp wedges of potato, nicely charred at the edges but still with fluffy insides, and spindly green beans.
The front-of-house operation is sharp as a tack; while the food really is excellent – Ben acts as exec chef but heading up the kitchen here is Pegs Quinn, formerly of the famous River Café – it may, in fact, be the service (friendly and skilled in equal measure) that converts you into a regular. This style of hospitality is a special thing.
If you’re not up for a full meal, the bar is lined with a couple of seats, and more high stools sit in a small window area. Cocktails are on the go, as is a carefully curated wine list – both of which are being taken advantage of by drinkers this lunchtime. In the main dining area, the atmosphere is buzzy; guests lean over to others’ tables to talk about the food, and Dom and general manager Magda zip around, making everyone feel like they’re in exactly the right spot in the world right now.
I’m positive there is absolutely no way on this here earth that I can fit in dessert. Until I take my first bite of the burnt lemon tart. The velvety, zesty middle only just holds its shape on the plate – so lovely and loose it is – and the pastry crust is happily thin and crumbly.
I book my next table on my way out.
Bianchis, 1-3 York Road, Bristol BS6 5QB; 0117 329 4100