Restaurant Review: Aqua Ristorante, Old Welwyn
Food and drink editor Richard Cawthorne enjoys lunch at Aqua Ristorante in Old Welwyn
SPARKLING, cheerful and with a modern d�cor, Aqua in Old Welwyn is a relatively new addition to the Hertfordshire scene. It opened in November 2006 after being acquired by Filippo Mazzarella, who asked his old school friend Raffaele Lettieri to join him in the venture. Both men are 37 and members of the large Italian community in St Albans. Filippo took on the tasks of ownership - and much of the cooking - while Raffaele became floor manager, greeting customers and ensuring the smooth running of the front of house. It is fair to say the combination seems to be proving a success.
On the day Hertfordshire Life called, Filippo was taking a few hours off, a rare treat in the aftermath of a hectic Christmas and in preparation for becoming the father of twins, while Raffaele explained why he thinks Aqua works so well. Needless to say, the influences of a certain Mediterranean country loom large - Filippo's parents are from Salerno and Raffaele's from Pompeii, and both men make the journey to the homeland regularly.
In Filippo's case, it means he can keep up with new tastes and fashions in food and indulge his passion for cooking for Aqua's clients. Specialities include bracciola, at �13.90, a rolled thin-cut rump steak stuffed with garlic, pecorino cheese and flat leaf parsley slowly cooked in a rich wine tomato sauce and served on a bed of polenta. Also recommended are the grilled lamb cutlets coated with mixed herbs (�14), while other tempting mains include pollo impanato (�11.50), one of five chicken dishes on the menu, and the torre di mare, or fish tower (�16.90), with red mullet, barramundi and red snapper fillets on a bed of spinach topped with red cherry tomatoes and red onion sauce.
I sample another house speciality from the pasta menu, the penne d'Aqua (�9), consisting of tiger prawns, rocket and parmesan in chilli and olive oil. It is impressive - a spicy treat to ward off the cold weather with an interesting combination of tastes. Other pastas showing the Filippo touch include penne salsiccie (�8.70) - Italian sausage, mushrooms, mozzarella and Napoli sauce - and linguine di granchio (�8.90), which has crab cooked with fennel seeds and the fennel bulb in a white wine stock sauce.
The broad outlook imparted by regular travel to the home country manifests itself in another way at Aqua, where, says Raffaele, the village setting of Old Welwyn ensures customers rapidly become friends. One cherished recommendation which he forbears to mention but which we find out anyway talks approvingly of him stopping to chat to a party for 20 minutes to find out what they think of the restaurant. 'The atmosphere here reminds us of back in Italy,' he says. 'Everyone knows everyone and that makes things very relaxed.'
He continues, 'In a big city, things change every day but here, because you do know everyone, you know how to please them. Our customers are nearly all friends, people we know, or people who come on the recommendation of people we know. And we respond to that - I have worked in quite a few places in Italy and England and for food I think this is one of the best places in Hertfordshire.'
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Well, he would say that, wouldn't he? But, he claims, it's not just his opinion - he is out there, front-of-house, and that, he says, is what the customers tell him. And there's more. A restaurant, he says, needs to be an occasion, where food and service combine to make it an entertaining place, where people are interested to go and enjoy themselves. That, and the good feedback it engenders, Raffaele says, is what makes all the effort and the stress worthwhile.
Aqua RistoranteBridge Chambers28 High Street, Welwyn, AL6 9EQ01438 716 322