The Hearth in Eastgate: Restaurant review

Jonathan Austin Daniels (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Jonathan Austin Daniels (Getty Images/iStockphoto) - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

An unassuming former greasy spoon in Lewes has become a top-rated Italian pizzeria and bakery, as Duncan Hall discovers

Usually when it comes to food offerings near bus stations there is the choice of a greasy spoon, a small sandwich shop or a fast food takeaway.

One certainly doesn’t expect a bakery and pizzeria which has been feted by BBC Good Food Magazine and the Sunday Times. But that is exactly what has happened with The Hearth, which has been slap bang in the middle of the Lewes transport network since 2012. The ground floor Bakehouse offers freshly baked artisan bread, handmade pastries, pizza slices and tea and coffee six days a week to take away or eat on tables outside. The bakery grows its own heritage wheat varieties in the South Downs National Park, with the flour stone ground at Offley Mill. The bread is all baked using the falling heat of the wood-fired oven in the pizzeria.

And it is that oven blazing in the corner of the upstairs pizzeria which distinguishes the space from your average greasy spoon-style café. Accessed through a fairly nondescript staircase, The Hearth’s restaurant space of vinyl floors, recycled furniture and big windows looking out over the bus station may not be very grand. But the welcome from the lunchtime waiter is extremely warm. Despite the room filling up fast with customers both young and old wanting everything from quick meals to a proper sit-down with a bottle of wine he never seems overwhelmed – the essence of good service. The lunch menu doesn’t differ from the evening selection, offering a small but perfectly formed list of traditional starters, ranging from homemade Italian meatballs (from £3.95) to garlic bread (from £2.90). The plump and juicy garlic mushrooms (£3) come swimming in garlicky olive oil accompanied by four large fingers of crusty sourdough bread designed to soak up the juices.

Although the oven-baked lasagne (£9.50) is very tempting it would be rude not to sample the pizzas which come in individual 8in or sharing 12in sizes. The Hearth makes traditional Neapolitan sourdough pizzas, served with a steak knife to carve up the crunchy crust and reveal the pillow-soft base. With 12 pizzas and two calzones on the menu there are some unusual options – the aromatic lamb (£7.25/£9.95) or al funghi with Sussex Blue cheese (£6.75/£9.25) look interesting. But, described as “one for the purist”, the Napoletana with anchovies, capers and olives (£6.75/£9.25) is the winner.

The 8in pizza arrives almost instantly after the starter is polished off and does not disappoint. The mozzarella is on the verge of melting, adding tasty substance rather than just a pervading goo. The tomato topping is rich and soaked into the bread rather than slopping everywhere. And the chef is sparing with the anchovies and capers, turning them into salty taste bombs. Not so with the gorgeous black olives which are generously scattered.

To wash it down is a small selection of red, white and rose wines, served by the glass and the bottle, as well beers ranging from the local Harveys and Long Man breweries to German wheat beer Erdinger Dunkel and the classic Italian Peroni. Two courses are plenty, so I miss out the desserts – all made in the downstairs bakery – which include tiramisu (£4.95), treacle, salted caramel and apple tarts (from £4.50) and Hearth-made Sicilian gelato (£3.95).

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Coming in at less than £15 – including a tip – for a filling lunchtime meal, The Hearth is offering both high quality locally sourced goodness at an easily affordable price.

The Hearth is in Eastgate, Lewes, BN7 2LP. The Bakehouse is open Mon to Sat 9.30am to 5.30pm. The Pizzeria is open Mon to Fri 5pm to 10pm, Wed to Fri noon to 2.30pm and Sat noon to 10pm. Call 01273 470755;

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