The creation of a Carluccio’s restaurant in Shrewsbury was a marker. The town had got itself onto the radar of those who make decisions about investment and was deemed worthy of one of the nation’s better-quality chains.
A cause for celebration among those who enjoy mid-priced dining, it came at a time when Shrewsbury’s independent restaurant scene was growing, when the town’s food festival was in full flow and when there was a genuine buzz in Shropshire’s county town.
It didn’t last, of course. These things never do. Shrewsbury enjoyed a moment that it couldn’t sustain. It didn’t move up the rankings and such restaurants as Carluccio’s closed, unable to sustain the revenue required to be successful.
And so a large and not insignificant vacancy occurred in Shrewsbury’s picturesque The Square.
Enter La Piazetta. The restaurant, which translates to ‘the little square’ promised to be all things to all people, serving coffee and cake, light lunches, fuller evening meals and more.
It couldn’t have come to Shrewsbury at a harder time. For the past 16 months there’s been nothing but the chaos of Covid.
And as we move into a new fight in the war against the pandemic, we might reasonably expect a similar period of transition, as we learn to live with the virus before it eventually blows itself out.
The direction of travel is abundantly clear. Boris and co are planning to keep the economy open, come hell or high water, as we learn to live with both the pandemic and the pingdemic. There will be further disruption, periods of low customer confidence and difficulties as Brexit bites and we find it might not have been the path to the sunlit uplands that we were promised.
Restaurants, therefore, will have to work hard. There are chronic staff shortages, the economy has contracted, the supply chain is leaky and it’s a certainty that not all will make it through a period more challenging than the economic crash of 2008.
Those with bigger overheads and larger spaces, including La Piazzetta, will be challenged most of all as they seek to attract sufficient custom to stay afloat and prosper.
It’s fortunate, then, that the restaurant is in good shape. As much as anything, that’s down to the staff.
When I visited for a mid-week supper, service was the stand-out feature.
For sure, the menu ticks most boxes as it looks to recreate a taste of Italy at a time when our temperatures have been as high as those in southern Europe.
The are breakfast offerings, lunches and dinners, tasty treats for kids (not that they spell that correctly on their website), as well as sharing platters and light bites.
The only thing missing was a range of pizzas, which it would be sensible for La Piazzetta to add.
But it was the service, rather than the food, that really shone.
The restaurateur Marco Pierre White habitually tells people that creating the right environment is the most important part of hospitality.
He’s right, of course. Get the ambience right, make people feel special and they will come back for more.
It doesn’t matter if the food is middle-of-the-road as long as people are made to feel like a million dollars.
That’s very much the case at La Piazetta.
A European waitress was on duty on Thursday. She was exceptional. Experienced, polished, above the noise and with high levels of skill, she was a great ambassador for the venue. Putting guests at ease, showing remarkable efficiency, dealing with supercilious customers without being ruffled, she demonstrated real class.
Her English companion was similarly good, showing high levels of engagement and attentiveness. Both made the dining experience good, and earned their paymasters an extra mark from this reviewer.
Service is the variable that all restaurants ought to be able to control, providing they place sufficient focus on making guests feel welcome.
At La Piazetta, they have that art nailed.
The food was decent enough, too. I started with halloumi fries which had been cut nice and slim, rather than being pared into timber-sized wedges. They were served with apologetic salad leaves and a deliciously piquant tomato salsa. Cooked until nice and golden, the wedges made for happy eating.
A chicken Milanese followed, with a fillet butterflied, breadcrumbed and cooked until deep gold in colour. The chicken was tender while the exterior had plenty of crunch.
Served with a lemon wedge that provided ample seasoning, it was a delicious dish.
There was a vast side salad, mostly consisting of watery tomatoes, which ensured a lightness to the dinner during the current, abnormally hot weather.
There was room for dessert. The absence of carbs meant it was time to peruse the dessert menu and a panna cotta with a passion fruit reduction.
The panna cotta was pleasant, with just the right wobble, while the passion fruit was sticky, sweet and ever-so-slightly sharp.
It was served with the simplest of garnishes – two raspberries and a mint leaf – and it was a pleasing end to a good dinner.
It would be disingenuous to describe La Piazetta as a restaurant that offers gastronomic thrills.
The food is basic; it’s simple Italian food that wouldn’t be beyond the measure of most home cooks or, indeed, the best of the supermarket ranges of cook-at-home dishes.
In truth, however, that’s an assessment that could be made of pretty much all of the county’s Italian restaurants.
Yet the light, airy dining room and exceptional service take La Piazetta up a level.
Staff who make guests feel comfortable and welcomed are transformative; they make what might otherwise be an ordinary evening something altogether different.
The restaurant fills an important space and as we start the long road towards a post-Covid life, it is one of Shrewsbury’s most important venues.
With such staff as it has, it will continue to thrive.
La Piazzetta, 14 The Square, Shrewsbury SY1 1LH