MARANTO'S is as well known for its quizzes as its cuisine.
Entertainment, general knowledge, music, they happen on week nights in the first floor bar, right over the Italian restaurant. They take their triviata seriously here.
Risotto marinara was a selection of humdrum seafood struggling to stay afloat in sea of overpowering tomato sauce, with rice that was cooked to a near mush
This gaff seems to have been around for, oh, forever, but, if this were a pub quiz, I might say that the year it ceased to be a purveyor of window blinds, and began trading as Maranto's restaurant and bar, was the one in which Derek Hatton became deputy leader of Liverpool City Council, and Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi took more money than any other film at the box office.
The year was 1983, if you hadn't guessed. The building's interior is as diverse as its past occupants (chemist, plumbers' merchant, Wesleyan chapel, cocoa house . . . ) and doesn't really date because it doesn't really have a date: big, handsome furniture, wood of several hues, colonial-style ceiling fans, an aspidistra, and a vast window on to the world of Lark Lane. It's like walking into the best Havana junk shop in Havana.
Like the décor, the menu does not seem to alter much. A tripadvisor review from 2005 mentions meatballs and chorizo sausage, deep fried brie, barbecued baby back ribs and chicken cacciatore. All still there, indeed we ate most of them, which probably says as much about our imagination as theirs.
But, if weekends are anything to judge by, they are doing very nicely, thank you, and while 26 years in business might not make a bar ancient, for a restaurant it might as well be eternity.
Maranto's is one of those neighbourhood Italian restaurants – you've probably got one near you – which has managed to outlive scores of rivals, many of them offering a lot worse food, and many of them a lot better.
They survive by turning out lots of easy, crowd-pleasing pizzas, burgers, pasta and garlic bread – at competitive prices, while emphasising service and atmosphere.
And these places were family friendly way before the term was coined. Indeed, circa 1983, Italian restaurants were about the only licensed premises in the country where children were not rated, on the scale of desirable guests, somewhere between a plague of rats and an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease.
Hence, Maranto's “Family” Restaurant, where the kids are singled out for special attention. Ours were complaining that other children had balloons: moments later they had their own. And the waiters here do the usual banter with the bambinos; in fact, the only things missing from their routine were their comically-outsize pepper mills – perhaps they were taking a break from the daily grind.
We had eaten here before, with mixed fortunes; pizza was good, sirloin was not (customers wishing for their steak “well done” are warned on the menu that this will take 20 minutes to achieve).
There are the usual UK Italian staples, plus burgers given a Latino spin “smothered with bolognese sauce, mushrooms and mozzarella”, if that's what you like.
Bog-standard garlic bread in the form of a sliced soft roll (£2.95) arrived for the boys along with a substantial rack apiece of ribs (from the kids menu) in a lip-smacking, rib-nibbling, tastebud-tickling, child-pleasing barbecue sauce, and a finger bowl which they used as an occasional alternative to their trousers.
Meatballs and chorizo (£5.95) combined spice-packed cubes of sausage with meatballs which, despite a certain uniformity, were moist, fresh and well-seasoned, and came with a hunk of good quality ciabatta to mop the vibrant red wine, basil and tomato sauce.
Saute Mushrooms With A Twist (£4.95) featured fungi whose vapidity achieved sapidity with the help of garlic and a rich Napoli sauce, the twist presumably coming in the covering of melted mozzarella.
The breast of chicken in the chicken cacciatore (£12.25) was wrapped in thin rasher of smoked bacon (pancetta would have been betta).Tender and not overcooked, the meat nevertheless needed help with flavour and got it, baked and engulfed in red wine, peppers, garlic mushrooms and tomato.
The result wouldn't win any medals but hit the spot agreeably enough. Chips with everything are included in the price of the dish (or you can have new potatoes) and were pretty good for the bagged variety.
Risotto marinara (£8.95) was a selection of humdrum seafood – mostly mussels, squid and shrimps – struggling to stay afloat in sea of overpowering tomato sauce, with rice that was cooked to a near mush and which left me wishing I'd ordered the pizza.
All the puddings are bought-in, bar the “home-baked” vanilla cheesecake which was the only one they didn't have.
A cherry alternative, served with a rather synthetic tasting, vivid cherry sauce, did not appear to be baked, but if that doesn't bother you then fine.
Scoops of pink and brown ice cream, in cornets, were included in the kids' menu which, at £3.95 apiece, helped keep the total bill at £56 – with soft drinks and a couple of espressos it's hard to argue with value like that, especially given the portion sizes.
None of the sauces we sampled gave the impression of being born and braised there and then, but this is not the point of a low-fuss, high turnover operation, plus you do get to eat in a pleasant space with a friendly welcome.
And if there are question marks over the food, a lot of them are coming from the quiz up above.
55-63 Lark Lane
0151 727 7200
Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: Fine dining against the best fine dining, cafés against the best cafés, curry houses against the best...etc...
Following on from this, the scores represent: 1-5: Saw off your leg and eat that; 6-9: Get a DVD; 10-11: Only in an emergency; 12-13: If you’re passing; 14-15 Despite the odd gripe, worth a trip; 16-17 Exceptional; 18-19: Verging on greatness; 20: Perfection
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