Tough competition: The newest Italian addition to Hessle’s dining scene is in need of some refinement, writes Dave Lee.
I really like the people who own and run Villa Blanca, the new Italian restaurant that has opened on the Weir in Hessle. Ben and Kash (the owners), all the kitchen crew, the waiting staff and, mostly, George the hugely efficient and gloriously unguarded head waiter – I think they are all lovely, keen, friendly people. I worry, though, that even with all of their concerted efforts they may struggle to find a place in the hearts of a local populace who are already very well-served by excellent, existing Italian restaurants.
Hessle is the town on the western edge of Hull where the north tower of Humber Bridge rises from the foreshore. It’s fairly big and comparatively affluent, yet has always struggled to maintain a thriving pub and restaurant scene. Despite the town having a large population (who are, presumably, just as hungry and thirsty as any other) there is not one decent pub and restaurants are almost entirely limited to two Italians – San Luca, near the foreshore, and Lucianos at the other end of the Weir to Villa Blanca. There are another two excellent Italian restaurants in the surrounding area as well as a couple of Italian takeaways and an Italian deli. Hessle, it has to be said, is not short of Italian food.
By far the best restaurant in the town used to be Artisan; the sublime, small, modern English outfit which shut its doors last year after owners Richard and Lindsey Johns could no longer bear the frustration of being unfairly ignored by the men from Michelin and went off to seek challenges anew. Villa Blanca has opened where the Artisan once was and (when I visited, anyway) they had yet to remove the various ‘Restaurant of the Year’ plaques and guide recommendation stickers in the window that the Johns failed to take with them.
They have at least expanded the restaurant; they’ve moved the toilets, extended the kitchen, increased the seating, painted the place white and created a poorly-appointed, over-lit bar, into which they optimistically hope to attract non-eating punters. Drinkers in Hessle may be badly served but I doubt they are yet desperate enough to spend their evenings sitting in the uncomfortable anteroom of an Italian restaurant.
Of course, Villa Blanca need not worry about the indigenous population if they can attract punters prepared to drive any distance for excellent food. Sadly, they may struggle to persuade these customers to visit as well. From the vast and exhausting menu (dozens of options for pizzas, pastas, steaks and so on – there are four variations of garlic bread alone), I decided to choose absolute Italian classics. I was unconvinced by what I had read of the restaurant in advance – even booking a table was an ordeal – so I wanted to try and work out if Villa Blanca could at least manage with the bare basics of the cuisine.
We selected starters of bruschetta and gamberoni all aglio. The gamberoni dish was fine, but the prawns were a little overdone and the bread served with the dish had that chewy texture you get when it has been frozen and defrosted. The bruschetta had the same bread problem with the additional disadvantages of tasteless, powdery tomatoes and a distinct lack of garlic. They claim that all the bread and pizza bases are made in-house. If that’s true, then they need to have a serious look at their baking techniques.
Mains brought linguine con fruti di mare, which found small shellfish and chunks of fish struggling to be discovered beneath a gloopy sauce and over-cooked pasta; and meatballs on linguine, which consisted of more over-cooked pasta with unseasoned meatballs made from an unidentified meat that had been ground virtually to dust. The coughing fit they provoked made me reach for the wine to clear my throat. The wine was excellent for this purpose, by the way.
Puds were, as is so often the way at the end of a poor meal, very good indeed. The tiramisu was boozy and spongy and just so and the double truffle chocolate cake was just as delicious as you’d expect anything called double truffle chocolate cake to be.
One of the things I always like best at the end of an Italian meal is the little glass of dessert wine they bring you as a thanks for dining with them – a limoncello, vin santo, chaudelune or, if you’re looking too sober, a grappa. At Villa Blanca, we were proudly presented with (and I think this speaks volumes) a Disaronno. Just about sums the place up.
So, with unexceptional food, perhaps price will attract people to Villa Blanca? Certainly there will be many people who feel a three-course meal with extras and wine a bargain at just under £80.
Sorry, lovely people at Villa Blanca, while I wish you all the best, but I think your menu is way too big and I think your food needs much refining if you are to convince enough people to repeatedly choose you over all the competition in the area.
Villa Blanca, 22 The Weir, Hessle HU13 0RU. 01482 644906. Open daily, 5pm till late.