You know those restaurants that just seem to get better with age? Those places that have been around forever (we’re talking decades), yet still manage to draw in the crowds as if they were a new-opener? Yes, well, Marco Polo is one of them. The modern, deliciously laid-back Italian, on Dean Street, is packed to the rafters every time we visit (and we stop by quite often) and older family members tell us nothing has changed since they used to call in “back in the day” for after-work date nights and Saturday night penne. Safe to say, it was, and still is, one of Newcastle’s most-loved restaurants – but it is so much more than just a spaghetti stop. It’s modern, unfussy and oddly peaceful, too, considering how busy it gets, serving up rustic, no-frills Italian food, but with a sophisticated, tasty twist. A place for all kinds of diners and all occasions, big or small. Our latest jaunt took place on a balmy Sunday night and we dined among big groups of chums, small families and a handful of couples. All of them beaming over their plates and bowls of carby goodness.
Nothing flash; simple oak table and chairs, exposed red brickwork, tan leather booths and the odd olive green accent here and there. Lights are rose gold copper and give off a hazy, bedroom kind of glow – a one that relaxes you from the get-go, but doesn’t make you want to face plant your pizza. Try and a nab a spot by the window, like we did, so you can people-watch between courses. You see all sorts heading (stumbling?) up and down good old Dean Street.
Every spirit, liqueur, beer and wine (red, white, rosé, fizzy…) you can think of, plus a rather impressive cocktail list (there are 23 on offer, all for £6.95). Sip on Italian classics, like Aperol Spritz and Campari Fresco (a mix of Campari, pineapple and lemon), Italy’s version of the Margarita, a few fizzy concoctions, muddling Prosecco with the likes of Amaretto, lemon sorbet, mint and vodka, and two sweet little after-dinner numbers, which took our fancy. The Espresso Martini is nice and strong, giving a real coffee kick, just how we like it, and the Nutella Martini, made with Frangelico liqueur, Baileys, Vodka, Cream, Nutella and hazelnuts, is a chocaholic’s dream. Creamy, indulgent and satisfying, but not sickly, so long as you stick with one. Two perfect post-pasta picks.
Like in many Italian joints, the menu is carved into clear sections; antipasti, pasta, risotto, pizza, meat and fish. Standard stuff at first glance, but delve deeper and discover tons of mouth-watering variety. Stand-out starters include breaded lamb shoulder with a refreshing tomato and mint salsa, delicate slithers of beef carpaccio teamed with black truffle, oozy goats cheese with fresh figs and parma ham, and squid, chargrilled ’til gnarly, with plenty of chilli-infused olive oil. Pasta and pizza lean more traditional – many of our fellow diners tucked in to classic margheritas, four-cheese slices and creamy forkfuls of carbonara – though we favoured more inventive flavour combos. The meat and fish offering is brilliant; pork belly, monkfish,fillet of beef, swordfish, freshly-caught king prawns, scallops and crab, rib eye steak, whole baby chickens, Tuscan sausages… the lot. Nearly everything is chargrilled, or roasted, for maximum flavour.
What we ate
We kicked things off with two simple starters; Fungi Selvatici (£6.95) and Gamberoni (£9.50). The first, though essentially mushrooms on toast, earned itself zero complaints from our dining buddy. Meaty, wild, foraged nuggets – nice and woody – tossed in plenty of fresh garlic, ricotta and olive oil, toppled over grilled, crusty ciabatta. What’s not to love? The second saw plump pan-fried king prawns, as big as our fist, joined by wedges of grilled flat bread, charred spring onions and a zesty lemon and garlic aioli, which we advise smothering over everything. Eat with your hands, mop up every last drop of sauce and enjoy. We couldn’t decide whether we wanted pizza or pasta for mains, so we did what any clever person would do – we ordered both. On this occasion, it was the Linguine Polpette (£10.95) that stole our friend’s heart, not only for the silky ribbons of golden pasta they happily slurped their way through, but for the deliciously rich, simple, sauce and the golf ball-sized meatballs plonked on top. So obviously homemade – and to perfection. Juicy, tender, well-seasoned and packed with herbs. Add a flurry of parmesan and you have a timeless dish, executed brilliantly. The same goes for the Rigatoni al Ragu (£10.95), which we practically inhaled. Many ragu-style dishes we’ve tried have served up no more than a spoonful of meat in a bland and watery tomato sauce, but Marco Polo’s is nothing like that. Instead, you get mounds upon mounds of feathery beef shin, which melts in the mouth, in a thick and velvety red wine and sage sauce (we loved the crispy sage leaves on top). We asked for extra garlic and yet more parmesan, which took it to another level. A pasta dish so pleasing and comforting, we’re still talking about it now. As for the pizza, we wanted a bit of heat, so shared an old favourite – the Piccante (£10.95), which showcases fiery pepperoni, chilli, tomato and mozzarella. A does-what-it-says-on-the-tin pick that went down a treat. With full bellies, we said no to puds on this occasion, but next time we’ll be trying the white chocolate panna cotta with rhubarb and Amoretti crumb. Oh, and possibly the chocolate cake (which just so happens to be gluten-free), too, with lots of vanilla mascarpone. Any visit to Marco Polo is one big treat, after all.