Magnifico! Felice’s Bella Roma is an authentic taste of Italy in the heart of Wakefield.

This article first appeared in the August 2013 edition of the Wakefield magazine TopicUK. Please check the restaurant’s website for updated details of menus, prices, opening hours, etc.

It was a hot and sultry night in Wakefield when my two companions and I sat down to eat at Felice’s Bella Roma in Northgate. Yes, it was actually hotter here than it was in Rome (I checked!) but no matter – we were hungry and ready for some real Italian cooking.

Now, I have to let you into a secret – I’m something of an Italophile, I love Italy and I love Italian food. Over the last year, Felice’s has become one of my favourite restaurants in Wakefield so I already knew what to expect when I booked my table and I wasn’t to be disappointed. What I didn’t appreciate when I made my reservation was that this was something of an anniversary for the proprietor, it being one year to the day since he signed contracts on his purchase of the business.

From the moment we walked into the restaurant, we were made very welcome by proprietor Felice Di Giorno and his team. As it was a quiet evening, we were shown straight to our table – on busier nights, Fridays and Saturdays in particular, when it is always advisable to book ahead, you may find yourselves in the upstairs bar area while you wait for your table to become free.

Now, called me old-fashioned, but I do like to see a nice tablecloth – it adds a touch of quality in my view and sets the tone of the establishment. First impressions count and Bella Roma gives a very good account of itself indeed, whether you are stealing a glance through the window as you pass by or on entering through the front door to sample some of the delights on the menu.

Some readers may have encountered Felice before – as he has worked at Renaldi’s in Sandal in the past, becoming the manager there, before deciding to set up on his own. Originally from Scalea in Calabria, Southern Italy, Felice moved to England in 1998 at the behest of the original owners of Rinaldi’s – two Italian brothers from his own village in Italy. Felice later set up his own restaurant, Gavi, in Tingley but was enticed to return to Rinaldi’s as manager when the Sandal restaurant changed hands in 2010. However, in June 2012, the opportunity arose for Felice to purchase the Bella Roma business and the rest, as they say, is history.

Now rebranded as Felice’s Bella Roma, with a team of 10 to 15 full-time and part-time staff, the restaurant offers an extensive menu of pasta, pizza, meat and fish dishes, with a constantly changing specials board. The menu has recently been completely overhauled and contains a good selection of vegetarian options. There is a fixed price lunch menu with one course for just £6.95 and two courses for only £9.95, and an early bird evening menu (available between 5.30 and 6.30 pm) offering two and three course meals for a highly competitive £10.95 and £13.95. A very drinkable house wine (Sangiovese in our case) is £13.95 for a bottle and then there is a rising scale that ascends all the way up to a Barolo Classico (not sampled) at £31.95. If you prefer something with a bit of sparkle, there’s Prosecco at £20.95 a bottle, and, if you want to push the boat out for a celebration, you might want to try the Bollinger Champagne and or Veuve Clicquot at £49.95 a bottle (alas, also not sampled on this occasion!).
Apart from some special dishes that require a degree of pre-preparation, meals are freshly prepared to order in the kitchen and sourced from suppliers in Yorkshire and, of course, Italy with ingredients coming from specialist Italian importers for that authentic Italian flavour.

My companions and I dined from the à la carte menu and started with a focaccia pomodoro, a thin pizza-based appetizer dish covered in tomato, garlic and extra virgin olive oil. We then moved on to sample starters of Caprese salad (mozzarella cheese, with fresh tomatoes and basil oil), garlic mushrooms in a cream sauce, and, from the specials board – White Bait with a salad accompaniment. Starters are priced from £5.45 to £7.95. For our main course, I had the Crespelle Ricotta e Spinaci, spinach and ricotta cheese wrapped in a pancake and baked in a tomato and cream sauce with mozzarella cheese. My companions had a Pennette Salmone e Asparagi (pasta with fresh salmon, asparagus and a touch of tomato) and, from the specials board, a Wild Mushroom Ravioli. Many of the pasta dishes on the menu can be prepared with gluten free pasta on request. There’s a good selection of pasta and pizza dishes to choose from varying in price from £7.95 to £10.95 with meat dishes running from £12.95 up to £29.95 for the prime Yorkshire 20oz Rib Eye Steak.

If you have a sweet tooth, no meal is complete without dessert, and somehow we all managed to squeeze in a pudding (all priced at £4.95). It’s a tough life being a restaurant reviewer!

I can thoroughly recommend the Zuppa Inglese – homemade Italian trifle (and not, as a literal translation might suggest, English soup!). One of my party had the Crema Bruciata (Crème brûlée), while the third had a selection of ice creams. Coffee brought this perfect meal to a close.

If you have a special dietary need, do contact the restaurant to discuss. As already mentioned, many of the pasta dishes can be provided gluten free and the restaurant is developing a special gluten-free menu. Some thought is also being given to extending even further the number of vegetarian options available.

While taking some photographs to illustrate this article, I fell into conversation with a chap at an adjacent table who was visiting the area on business. He praised the restaurant and said that, in Bella Roma, Wakefield had something to be proud of.

Felice tells me that it has always been his dream to run his own restaurant and it is important to him that he provides quality food with a friendly service. Now married with an English wife and with two children, Felice is proud of his Italian heritage and wants to ensure his customers sample something that is authentically Italian. Judging by my own experiences of dining here and the complimentary comments I’ve heard from others, I’d say that Felice’s Bella Roma is definitely a dream come true.

Ciao.

http://www.bellaromawakefield.co.uk/

63 Northgate, Wakefield, WF1 3BP

The Iris Restaurant – Great British Dining in Wakefield

This article first appeared in the June 2013 edition of the Wakefield magazine TopicUK. Please check the restaurant’s website for updated details of menus, prices, opening hours, etc.

Anyone walking around Wakefield will have noticed the number of new restaurants that have been opening across the city in recent years. This has been very good news both for local residents and visitors to the city, with a wide variety of restaurants now catering for just about every taste. In fact, it’s now harder than ever to decide where to go if you are looking for good food, good service and reasonable prices, all delivered in attractive surroundings.

One of the city centre’s newer offerings is the Iris restaurant in the Bull Ring, run by young chef Liam Duffy. Opened in November 2012, following a gestation period of nearly a year while a former empty shop unit was slowly fitted out with all the perquisites needed to operate a quality establishment, the Iris claims to offer “Great British Dining”. But what is it like to eat there? I went along to find out one rather busy Saturday evening in April.

I should perhaps declare that this was not my first visit to the Iris – I have eaten there before on a number of occasions. The fact that I keep going back suggests that Liam and his team are doing something right so expectations for this review were high and I’m happy to confirm that they were met once again.

When you first approach the restaurant, which is just down from the corner of the Bull Ring with Wood Street, you are faced with a smart, restrained, and indeed, understated, exterior but one which definitely adds something to the street scene. The windows are frosted to shoulder height – providing privacy for diners but also a sense of mystery for anyone walking past – you do have to study the wording to see that this is in fact a restaurant. (Liam worked closely with the landlord, Woodhead Investments of Wakefield, to ensure that both the interior and exterior of the building were fitted out to a high standard.)

On entering, you will usually be greeted by the restaurant manager, Laura, who will show you to your table – and, ideally, you will have booked in advance, especially at the weekend as the restaurant’s rising reputation means that it gets very busy and booking is really essential. The restaurant seats up to 50 in total over two floors and Liam likes to offer customers their table for the night – there’s no pressure to make way for other customers who followed you in in the hope of a table.

Interior décor is elegant, simple and modern and includes photographs of Wakefield. Dark wood tables and seating keep the atmosphere cosy and intimate and it does feel a world away from the noise and bustle of the street outside. While I’m not a huge fan of piped music, on the occasions I have dined at the Iris, there has been music playing very quietly in the background and, I’m pleased to say, it is not intrusive and does appear to have been selected to enhance the mood.

But, what about the food, I hear you asking? Well, ‘scrumptious’ is the word that comes most readily to mind (possibly because I read too much Enid Blyton as a child). The menu is not extensive – a choice of five starters, five mains, and five desserts on the night I was there, plus a handful of grill/steak offerings for those who really like their meat. There are also accompanying appetisers and trimmings – I particularly enjoyed the selection of artisan breads (£2.75) and the homemade chips (£2.50) were extremely ‘moreish’. There were four of us in my party and between us, we sampled three of the starters on offer – Arancini (goat’s cheese in breadcrumbs with olive and tomato salad); Scotch Egg (with smoked haddock and asparagus mayonnaise); and a fresh asparagus special served with a hollandaise sauce. All were light, delicious and well presented. For the main course dishes, we had Macaroni Cheese (served with a hen’s egg in breadcrumbs and spring vegetables); Sea Bream – the Grimsby-landed ‘fish of the day’ (served with a garnish); Free Range Chicken (with wild garlic and broccoli risotto); and a vegetarian risotto also from the specials menu. Again, all very enjoyable although we did have a debate about the unexpected choice of Sea Bream.

As a vegetarian, I am sometimes deterred by restaurants that only offer one vegetarian ‘choice’ of starter and main – when you are presented with just the one item from which to select, the choice really boils down to whether to bother eating there or not – so it was good to be asked when I booked my table whether there were any vegetarians or people with other dietary needs in my party. On the night, we were then offered a number of alternative vegetarian starters and main courses to pick from that don’t appear on the printed menu – so do make sure you let the restaurant know when you book if this is something that applies to you or a member of your party.

Portion size is good – generous enough to fill you but not so much that you can’t manage dessert – which meant that we all found room for puddings, and portions of the Rhubarb Roulade and the Coffee Crème brûlée were consumed with relish (you know what I mean). The menu will be changed every month or so.

Pricing is certainly competitive for food of this quality. Although all items are priced individually (starters at £4.95 and £5.95, mains £14.95 or £15.95 – extra for grill courses, and desserts £4.95 – £6.95), it is also possible to have two courses for £16.95 and three for £19.95 (a supplement will be charged for some items such as the Grill dishes). Wine is also sensibly priced and on a par with what you would expect while cocktails can be ordered from a selection priced at £4.95.

A few days after the meal, I went back to talk to Liam to find out what motivated this 21 year-old chef to open such a restaurant in Wakefield.

Perhaps the most obvious factor is that Liam is Wakefield born and bred – so he wanted to put something back into his home city. He could have gone elsewhere, of course, as he has experience of working in a number of well-established restaurants in the region and beyond, including at the Malmaison Hotel in Leeds, the Michelin-starred Burlington restaurant at the Devonshire Arms, and Aiden Byrne’s Church Green restaurant in Cheshire.

Fortunately for the bon vivants amongst us, Liam felt that the time was right for such a venture here in Wakefield where his roots and his family are. He also returns to the place where his career as a chef really began for him. His original ambition was to be an actor, and while attending college, he was taken on by Sloanes restaurant as a part-time pot washer. This led to an offer to train as a chef and so began his apprenticeship with Liam leaving college and swapping a career in the dramatic arts for one in the culinary arts.

His personal aspiration for the Iris (named after his grandmother in case you were wondering) is to provide quality food that is fresh and sourced locally (he buys his meat from Allums Butchers in Brook Street and his fish comes from Grimsby Docks via Doncaster fishmonger Stuart Shepherd, for example). And he wanted to employ local people – the restaurant now employs a team of ten young people including two apprentice chefs.

You have to admire Liam. He has worked hard to set up this restaurant and deserves to succeed. Will one restaurant be enough for Liam? Possibly not: this young man has ambition and a dream. Perhaps we will see a chain of Iris restaurants in years to come. He even has an idea for a hotel…..Now, I wonder where that will be!

http://www.iris-restaurant.com

12 Bull Ring, Wakefield, WF1 1HA

http://www.iris-restaurant.com

My life as a restaurant reviewer

As President of Wakefield Civic Society, I have responsibility for organising the Society’s Annual Design Awards. These have been running since 1966 and are designed to promote good design in architecture, town planning and conservation. There were originally just two categories – New Build and Refurbishment although each could apply to environmental as well as building schemes. The awards were presented every two years, although in some years, there were no schemes judged sufficiently merit worthy to receive an award.

In an attempt to keep the awards fresh and topical, in 2004, I recommended that the number of categories be increased from two to four to include the best new or refurbished shop front and the best new or refurbished public house, café or restaurant frontage. In 2006, I recommended a fifth category be added for best residential development. These recommendations were accepted by the Society’s executive committee as was a further recommendation I made to turn the awards into an annual event from 2008 onwards.

So, what does this have to do with my role as a restaurant reviewer? Well, it was while talking about the design awards in the public house/café/restaurant frontage category that I realised a number of people assumed that the Society was reviewing the food and drink being offered, rather than the architectural changes. This set me thinking so in 2009, I suggested that the Society start to do just that and we created a monthly Dining Club for Society members. This was scheduled to have its first meeting in January 2010, however, bad weather scuppered that and so it was February of that year when the club met for the first time. The idea is that the Dining Club should meet at a different venue each month to enjoy convivial conversation while sampling some good food (and drink). At the end of each evening, members score their evening – from the quality of the food and service to the value for money and overall experience. At the end of the year, the Society then awards its ‘Restaurant of the Year Award’ to whichever establishment (and occasionally, establishments, as there has been a tie on more than one occasion) scores the highest number of marks. This is a bit of fun but the restaurant owners enter into the spirit and the awards generate some publicity for the restaurants as well as for the Society.

Somewhere along the line, my involvement in all this gained me a reputation as a bon vivant and that reputation must have travelled. When Gill Laidler was setting up TopicUK magazine, a business to business magazine for Wakefield, and was looking for someone to write restaurant reviews, my name was put forward and I was offered the role, submitting my first review in May 2013. (I did point out that as a vegetarian, my reviews would have to be selective – but that wasn’t a problem; sometimes I take meat-eating friends along with me to widen the research!)

I’ve been writing reviews ever since, usually of restaurants in and around Wakefield but occasionally combined with travel articles as well. The articles are intended to promote Wakefield so they are reviews – I don’t see my role to be a critic as such. If I were to encounter an establishment that I couldn’t recommend, it would not feature in one of my reviews.

Many of the restaurant reviews on this website are adapted from articles I first submitted for TopicUK. Of course, they can only ever be snapshots based on my own experiences but I’d like to think that the articles do encourage readers to go out and try the establishments that I have reviewed over the years.

Dining with Distinction aboard the East Lancashire Railway

They say that nostalgia’s not what it used to be – and they might be right. I think we all tend to view the past through rose-tinted (or perhaps that should be ‘sepia-tinted’?) glasses but just occasionally it’s nice to go back in time to sample a bit of history first hand and this is exactly what I did when I paid a visit to the East Lancashire Railway one evening in August to experience one of their special ‘Dining With Distinction’ evenings.

This was a chance to re-live something of that golden age of rail travel that occurred between the wars when railway companies competed for your custom by offering ever faster services with ever more comfortable and stylish facilities, not least of which was the restaurant car.

While I had to cross the Pennines (eek!) for my latest ‘meals on wheels’ encounter, I can tell you that it was well worth the trip…..

It was a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon in September 2016 as I donned the tuxedo and black tie before driving over to Bury railway station, the starting point for my train journey. The refurbished ‘chocolate and cream’ liveried Pullman-style dining carriages were already lined up on the platform when I arrived and quite a throng of passengers and on-lookers were gathered alongside to admire the gleaming paintwork and peer in through the windows as the train was made ready. Before long, our 1920s steam locomotive, looking splendid in the maroon colours of the former London Midland and Scottish Railway, made its appearance. It was hooked up to the carriages and then shunted them over to a different platform and guests were invited to cross the footbridge to the other side of the station where our train now awaited us for our private reception. We were served strawberry-infused champagne and canapés to the accompanying renditions of a singer and guitarist playing a mix of songs from the 1920s and 30s, along with more contemporary numbers, while guests mingled and chatted to members of the staff beneath canopies bedecked with bunting. Fellow passengers had made quite the effort to get into the spirit of the evening – the men looking very smart in their black tie outfits while the ladies sported elegant evening gowns and cocktail dresses with more than the occasional feathery fascinator and tiara in evidence.

At 7.30 pm, we were ushered on board and shown to our comfortable armchair-style seats. Starters had already been laid out for us: Baked Lobster Pots, with baby asparagus and bruschetta-infused with garlic butter, or three-layer Vegetable Terrine for us vegetarians. Drinks orders were taken and the train slowly moved away from the platform as we tucked into the first course.

While we are eating, let me tell you a little about the railway on which we were travelling. It is now a preserved heritage line run by volunteers of the East Lancashire Railway Trust. The line runs between Bury and the terminus of Rawtenstall in one direction and between Bury and Heywood if you go the other way. The line was closed to passenger services by British Railways in 1972 and to freight (in this case, coal trains) in 1980. The Trust partially re-opened the line in 1987, and has gradually extended the route ever since.

Back to the meal: shortly after leaving the urban area of Bury, we entered open countryside. Yes, lambs did indeed gambol in the verdant fields and the train paused for a while to allow us to take advantage of the views in the setting sun while our plates were cleared and the next course – a Crème Ninon (pea soup if you prefer) with a Champagne cream drizzle – was served. And very nice it was too. The train continued its journey and we waved to bystanders along the way (as people always do in films), and most of them waved back.

The main course consisted of either a Roast Haunch of Venison with Port Figs, served with creamed potatoes and a red wine and rosemary jus, or a Vegetable Roulade of roasted red pepper, Feta cheese, and spinach, accompanied by a creamy roasted tomato sauce for those wanting a vegetarian option.

By this time, the train was approaching the end of the line and we slowly glided into Rawtenstall station. Here, while the locomotive was decoupled, we had the chance to get down from the train to stretch our legs on the platform although some passengers threw caution to the wind to mount the locomotive footplate as the engine crew took people on short rides back and forth in the cab. The potential for large cleaning bills notwithstanding, everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time. Eventually, the locomotive was re-attached at the opposite end of the train, we retook our seats and the train reversed along the line back to Bury. Dessert (Profiteroles and pouring cream) followed by coffee and chocolates were served. We arrived back at our starting point of Bury at 10.30 pm.

So, there you are. For a few hours, we revisited the past and indulged in a little bit of nostalgia for old times’ sake. Overall, we had a thoroughly enjoyable evening and many photographs were taken using some very 21st century technology. We travelled in style and we looked the part; the food was good and the service both efficient and friendly. If you like the idea of dining aboard a steam-hauled train, I can wholeheartedly recommend this excursion to you – but be warned that once might not be enough! Nonetheless, at around £55 per person, this is an affordable evening that represents excellent value. Give it a try – I think you’ll be chuffed.

You can find out more about the range of special dining experiences, afternoon teas and lunches offered throughout the year by the East Lancashire Railway on their website, www.eastlancsrailway.org.uk, or by telephone on 0161 764 7790.

Le Train Bleu Foncé

According to the website heritage-railways.com, there are some 173 heritage railways and tramways in operation in the UK and Ireland, usually run by teams of committed and hard-working volunteers.

One such heritage railway is the Nene Valley Railway (NVR) which runs over more than seven miles of track in a westerly direction from Peterborough. If you travel down to London on the East Coast main line, you will see the NVR just as your train pulls out of Peterborough Station: it’s on your right as you face London.

Back in 2016, while scrolling through my Twitter feed, I discovered that it was actually possible, thanks to the volunteers at the Nene Valley Railway, to experience something of the famous Orient Express magic at a fraction of the cost and right here in the UK! Yes, the NVR has a number of those handsome blue and gold railway carriages originally commissioned in the 1920s and 30s for the European Wagons-Lits company that gave rise to the legend that is the ‘Orient Express’ (actually, a number of luxury express trains that criss-crossed Europe).

The particular offer that caught my eye was to have a three-course dinner with coffee aboard Le Train Bleu Foncé (The Dark Blue Train) one Saturday evening in May. The original Blue Train is one of those classic named trains that used to run from Paris to the French Riviera, gaining a reputation for carrying the rich and famous, particularly during the inter-war years.

Tickets were booked at what looked like a quite reasonable £49.95 each (remember, this includes the train ticket as well as the meal) and we drove down to the hotel that we had booked for the night just outside Peterborough. The main station on the NVR is Wansford and we had been asked to arrive there no sooner than 7 pm when there would be time to admire and appreciate the steam locomotive before boarding the train at 7.30 pm. As things turned out, it was raining when we arrived at the station so, like many other of the 40 diners, we opted to wait in the station building until being invited to board the train and take our reserved seats.

Some people had opted to sit in private compartments, reserved for two people at a cost of £120 for two, but we had the cheaper option which meant that we could have been allocated seats at either a table for two or a table for four. As luck would have it, we ended up at a table for two at the front of the train, immediately behind the locomotive. Orders for drinks were taken (at an extra charge) and the train moved away from the station on its way to Peterborough. Starters were served as we reached Peterborough where the engine was de-coupled and repositioned at the other end of the train for the return journey to Wansford. We were enjoying the food and the views so hadn’t really appreciated that a problem was developing. By the time we reached Wansford again, it became clear that something was amiss and there was a longer wait than might have been expected for the main courses to arrive. However, we pulled away from the station once again on our way to the other end of the line … but then we stopped again.

Eventually, all became clear. It transpired that the steam locomotive, Swiftsure, had failed to live up to its name. In fact, it had failed, period! Fortunately, there was a back-up plan and a powerful diesel locomotive rapidly caught us up to take over hauling the train and once more we were underway as we reversed along the track again for the ride back to Peterborough.

By now, we were tucking into our main courses and our attention was fully focused on the food – we were hungry and also there was now less to see outside as it had grown quite dark. We had been asked to order our menu choices in advance at the time of booking. The selection was limited but we enjoyed our (vegetarian) options – a starter of Asparagus, Pea and Feta Salad, followed by Spring Vegetable Pasta with a Lemon and Chive Sauce, and finished off with Poached Nectarine with Zabaglione. Coffee and chocolates brought the meal to a close. The food was nicely presented and tasted good.

Having reached Peterborough, the diesel locomotive was uncoupled and re-attached at the other end and we set off for our final approach to Wansford Station. We alighted from the train at 10.40 pm. The rain, which had eased off earlier, made itself felt again as we returned to our cars and waiting taxis.

So, was it like the Orient Express? Well, yes – and no. We sat in original coaches built in the 1930s that had once formed part of the Blue Train and had plied their way countless times between Paris and the French Riviera. They were smart and comfortable and much lacquered and polished wood was in evidence but these are restored everyday heritage vehicles rather than luxury first class transports. Yes, it was possible to savour something of what travel on these trains in the 1920s and 30s might have been like but of course, there were compromises. The biggest difference, and one that worked to our considerable favour, was the price! (See how far 50 quid will get you on the Orient Express today!) And this price difference explains the other contrasts – with a team of volunteers running what is an occasional dining service, rather than a team of highly trained and paid staff who do this sort of thing more or less every day, the level of service was friendly rather than indulgent.

No, you don’t get the Swiss Alps out of the window but there was plenty to please the eye and there were certainly no complaints. In fact, from the laughter and chatter that surrounded us, it seemed that, like us, everyone aboard had enjoyed their experience enormously.

You can find out more about the Nene Valley Railway, including special events such as Le Train Bleu Foncé, on their website www.nvr.org.uk