How do you stand out in Stokes Croft – the vibrant creative, cultural heart of Bristol – where a host of top bars and world food joints already fight to boom? It’s this question that The Spaghetti Incident, an Italian pasta joint that opened in March last year – plus many more businesses besides, I should imagine – is ever-trying to answer.
Owner Oliver Underwood knows the home-cooked food at his place will go down brilliantly, if he could just tempt passers-by to take their first step in through the front door.
It’s a tricky one, as there’s just so much on offer in close vicinity – with Instagrammable small plates at Jamaica Street Stores, colourful Mexican fodder at Masa and Mezcal and, just a couple of doors down, Caribbean Croft restaurant and rum bar, where the bright, rustic branding is drawing people in on this grey Wednesday evening like the Siren does a sailor who’s been stranded in an office for eight-and-a-half hours.
For Bristolians at the moment, it feels as though Italian food is like that favourite knitted cardi. You haven’t slipped it on for a while because you have all these other new clothes – vegan threads made from new-fangled fibres and the minimalist-shape outfit you bought back from Norway. But when you don that chunky fave again – so comforting and functional – you wonder why you don’t wear it all the time.
Owner of The Spaghetti Incident, Oliver, was brought up in Rome by German and British parents and has worked over Europe (including his home city, where he had a successful joint), getting a good grasp of the British restaurant scene along the way. He doesn’t believe in serving anything other than homemade, so everything – from the pasta to the Italian sausage – is created from scratch, in-house.
By the time we pull up our pew in the dining room – the light, wooden interior is broken up with pops of lime green and pot plants, and the kitchen is open for all to peer into – it’s aperitivo o’clock. With our Negroni (priced at a very reasonable £7, FYI) and glass of crisp house white come a couple of deep-fried olives, stuffed tight with sausage meat.
(We thought we were special but, apparently, this is simply how Oliver treats all of his customers between 5pm and 7pm, serving homemade snacks along with drinks.)
J and I kick things off with the slow- cooked wild mushrooms with potato and truffle velouté (£6), which is as dreamy and creamy as we hoped and I savour the garlic and truffle tang. A cocoa pasta leaf sits on top – an intriguing edible decoration with a slight bitterness that gets gobbled up quickly. It’s attention to detail like this that really warrants more bums on seats than are here tonight.
Bean stew (£7) is made thick with cannelloni and borlotti beans and that homemade sausage. What, with this and the mash, I’m in comfort-food heaven. The crunchy topping with almonds and pecorino adds winning bite.
The main menu – split into traditional Roman and more novel, contemporary pasta creations – is full of dishes that are difficult to bypass. We resolve to return on sunnier days for the Devon crab mezzelune in crab bisque (£16) and the parsnip gnocchi with Stilton and walnut sauce and red wine poached pear mousse (£14). Instead, we pick classic winter warmers.
J’s pile of rich tagliatelle is smothered generously with a chunky ragu (£14). The meat has been slow-cooked on the bone, meaning the hunks are full of flavour and super soft, coated in a light tomato sauce and tangled through a nest of silky tagliatelle.
My large parcels of pasta are stuffed with mortadella ham (£14) to make piquant and salty bites, and are slathered with a tangy tomato sauce and lashings of pecorino. The portions are generous, the value is great.
I also manage a forkful of carbonara – with crisp, salty pancetta and a lightly creamy sauce, given a nice kick with coarsely ground black pepper – and a homemade tiramisu (£6), served in a Kilner jar. It’s perfection.
With this contemporary pasta place sitting somewhere in the middle of old- school Italian trattorias and nouveau concepts such as Pasta Ripiena, it’s one to please the masses.