Sian Griffiths heads to Aquila for an evening of fine Italian dining in one of Bristol’s newest restaurants…
Bristol has welcomed a steady stream of new restaurants of late, and Aquila is one of the most recent and most luxurious of them all. Located in what’s now being dubbed as Bristol’s ‘Italian Quarter’ due to the number of Italian restaurants nestled in this corner of the Old City, Aquila (meaning ‘eagle’) is a family-run, modern Italian restaurant that quite simply oozes style. This building on Baldwin Street is hard to miss, having undergone a multi-million-pound investment to turn it into a haven of fine Italian dining in a setting that is at once elegant and relaxed. Owner Pete Dunford explains: ‘Our investment reflects our passion for great Italian food, and our passion knows no bounds. Our commitment to bringing the best in fine dining to the people of Bristol is paramount.’
Before the official launch of this impressive restaurant, I was thrilled to be invited to try it out for myself. From the outside, the full-length windows stretching from floor to ceiling are most impressive, and I hoped that the theme continued inside.
It most certainly did. On arrival, we were greeted by Steve Mason, who joined Aquila from the Michelin-starred Crown at Whitebrook, Monmouthshire, and we were immediately charmed. He led us past the ground-floor bar and wine station, through the spacious 60-seat restaurant, towards our table – a plush cream leather booth with a sleek dark wood table – and brought us a glass of sparkling Prosecco to enjoy as we took in our surroundings. Design is quite obviously key here: the shimmering chandeliers dangling from the high ceilings were impressive, the mirrors were carefully positioned and the split-level layout, with 100 seats and a second bar upstairs, was very neat.
From our table, we had a great view into the kitchen, where Neapolitan Emilio Titillo, previously of Joya in nearby Bath, heads up the team of chefs (the majority of whom are Italian, I was pleased to learn). The authentic Italian menu – with a few modern touches – was an absolute delight, with its array of familiar fish, meat, pizza and pasta dishes. Amidst such opulent surroundings, I was pleasantly surprised at the competitive prices, which prove that fine dining can be approachable and affordable.
With a simple but superb Portobello con caprino (Portobello mushroom baked with goat’s cheese, pine nuts and truffle oil) and very inventive spuma di parmigiano (crispy Parma ham and carasao bread served on a Parmesan foam), we were off to a flying start. But it got even better as we moved onto the main event. I must admit to being tempted by one of the ten different Napolitana pizzas (how could I not be with six Italian chefs in the cucina?), but decided upon the rack of lamb, served perfectly pink with bread sauce, on the recommendation of our host. Deliciously succulent and coated in perfectly crisp Parmesan and mint crust, I was in heaven. Meanwhile, my fellow diner plumped for delicate and thinly sliced veal topped with Parma ham, sage and mozzarella in a white wine sauce. Again, it was sublime and showed real skill.
While I’ve frequently been disappointed by the dessert offering at Italian restaurants, this wasn’t the case here. It’s not just gelato and tirimasu – in fact, there’s not a tirimasu in sight. If you want your sweet fix, I can recommend the indulgent chocolate fondant Emilio (yes, it’s so good the chef named it after himself), with a rich and gooey melt-in-the-middle chocolate centre that flowed out as I cut through it – a chocoholic’s dream.
My verdict? Aquila exceeded expectations. The food was every bit as good as the lavish surroundings suggested, without charging sky-high prices, and the service was highly professional. It’s a testament to the place that diners can feel just as comfortable ordering pizza (which I’m dying to try) as they would ordering something more elaborate.