“ 39 Osborne Road / Southsea / PO5 3LR / Tel: 02392820515 „
At weekends and on public holidays it is to be expected that the restaurants on Palmerston Road in Southsea, between the shopping precinct and the road down to the sea, will be packed out and too noisy for conversation. My elder son's partner was working most of Easter weekend, so we planned to meet for lunch along with my younger son on Good Friday. When they suggested having a look at Al Forno Restaurant on nearby Osborne Road it seemed like the best idea, as this street is quieter during the daytime and not many people had yet discovered this gem of a restaurant that had only been open for a few weeks. We could see that it was almost empty inside, and a quick look at the menu by the door made it plain that prices were not extortionate, so we lost no time going in. There was just one couple inside with the time at around 2pm, although two other couples came in while we were there. We had a choice of tables and picked one by the side wall; the seats were all wooden, but there were one or two cushions around. The waitress brought us a special lunch menu whereby you could order half a pizza or half a pasta main course along with garlic bread and a side salad for an average price of £4 (some a little less, some at £4.50). I should point out that this special menu is not offered at weekends. One fresh orange juice was ordered, but I noticed that there was traditional still lemonade on the drinks menu which two of us ordered; when one of my sons decided to be awkward and ask for half orange juice and half still lemonade the waitress didn't bat an eyelid. Right at the bottom of the menu, tagged on to the pasta dishes, we suddenly noticed that there was a chicken, spinach, tomato and cheese risotto with lemon oil. Then there was a lentil and mint salad with goat's cheese on the specials board which the waitress explained could be ordered as either a starter or a main course. The young men weren't convinced that the half-size portions on the lunch menu were going to satisfy their appetites, so one went for the aforementioned salad as a main, one chose a full-size spaghetti bolognese, one opted for a full-size meat lover's pizza, and I contented myself with the lunch-size risotto. I didn't mind waiting a little for the food to arrive, as in contrast to the music I'd suffered at Sur La Mer Restaurant, this time we were treated to Damian Rice and Norah Jones. The décor at Al Forno is very tasteful in off-white and dark red for the wall, with heavy, I would guess Indian dining chairs and a number of potted plants, some very large. The flowers on each table were artificial, but their dark brown petals somehow complemented the furniture. We realised that we could see into part of the kitchen, and I was intrigued to see the chef lifting the spaghetti high in the air and separating it with his fingers. A pair of old-fashioned scales sat on the counter and fresh ingredients were weighed out before our eyes. It's a good sign that a restaurant has nothing to hide. The spaghetti, lentil salad and pizza were served and the waitress offered freshly grated parmesan cheese and milled black pepper. When she had gone, my younger son commented on the fact that the meatballs were missing from his pizza, so he asked about them when my risotto was brought. The waitress said he was quite right, there should have been meatballs, and duly took the pizza back to the kitchen. On seeing that my risotto was served with garlic bread and a side salad, those who had ordered full-sized pizza or pasta realised that they had in fact missed out on these accompaniments. A point to remember in future. It wasn't long before the pizza returned, this time with the pepperoni, chicken and pancetta toppings now jostling with those elusive meatballs. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of chicken in my risotto and also by its tenderness; the risotto itself was just the right consistency and there was an excellent balance of flavours with the cheese, tomato, spinach and lemon oil. The lentil, mint and goat's cheese salad looked and was delicious - if it were to be on the specials board again in the future I would be very tempted to opt for it as a change. The spaghetti, too, was definitely appreciated. My younger son boasts that he can devour a whole Domino's large pizza at one sitting, but on this occasion he was defeated and left a small slice of his pizza. His excuse was it was too early in the day (it was just gone 3pm by that time), as I had in fact woken him up when I rang him at 1pm. We hadn't intended to have more than one course and I don't think any of us had room for dessert. The only one indicated on the board was hot cross bread and butter pudding, specially for Good Friday of course. I would like to see what else is on offer on a future occasion. Having asked for the bill, I thought I should take a look at the ladies. The same colour scheme was used there, giving quite a sumptuous feel. Standards of hygiene were very good, and there were bottles of Bayliss and Harding's Wild Rose and Raspberry Leaf liquid soap and hand lotion. On my way back I noticed a separate area at the back of the restaurant which could be booked for private functions. The bill came to £34.50 for the four of us. To say that my main course was a mere £4.50 was perhaps to admit that it was the best value lunch I have ever had. The three full-size main courses were around £8 each, again excellent for the standard of the food. The waitress was extremely polite, friendly and attentive throughout and I don't think we had a single complaint other than those missing meatballs that were dealt with quickly and quietly. I would be interested to know how busy the restaurant is in the evenings; it has only been open for a few weeks and I am sure that as more and more people discover just how good it is, it will become deservedly popular. Whilst it is sure to be a success, I only hope it will not become too crowded and noisy as I can imagine wanting to go back again and again.