August Monday and into the cauldron of Cov city centre, with its many ladles sticking out. There’s so much building going on. At Bella Italia in Belgrade Plaza, I sit in the shadow of a half-completed tower block and its attendant cranes – student flats, of course. Having shed its car factories and many public sector jobs too, Coventry is attempting to fill the vacuum with a knowledge economy. In the last few years, buildings that once were offices – where people worked – have been converted almost overnight into ’boutique’ student accommodation. What will be left for the rest of us, I wonder, when inch by stealthy inch, every available space in this city has been swallowed up by Cov Uni?
On a sunny afternoon, Belgrade Plaza, part of that outer ward of no-man’s-land between the citadel of the precinct and the ramparts of the ring road, is yawningly empty. I half-expect to see a cat stroll through. The good denizens of Coventry must have found better things to do, on the last public holiday before Christmas, than mooch around their uninspiring city centre shops and restaurants.
Inside Bella Italia, the soporific theme continues: I’m almost the only diner. I’m not really sorry. Even for one person, my corner table is cramped, and I can’t help thinking that the occupants of neighbouring tables, should any present themselves, would be sipping their Camparis while practically sitting on my knee. Not a relaxing thought.
The décor is gloomier and more cluttered than you normally see in these days when light is God and minimalism is Holy Jesus. Pictures and mirrors comprehensively crowd the walls, there are some very large and very hideous leatherette banquettes, and the fixtures and fittings, in dark wood, tend to heaviness. At the far end of the room, the pass is framed by an artfully-arranged jumble of vintage-y kitchenware – meant to convey, I suppose, a devotion to ‘real’ cooking.
What I think this look is trying to reproduce – in a minus-flies-and-heat, sanitised sort of way – is the dim ambience of a Mediterranean farmhouse where only one room is ever used and you could spend all day searching for a single piece of paper under heap upon heap of decades-old detritus. Thanks to the balancing effects of spacious dining area, ample windows and cheerful collage of Art Deco posters, they kind of pull it off. I think it’s the gloriously over-the-top ceiling lights that seal the deal. But how about the food? Is that down-home dirty too?
Errr well…my ‘Panzerotti Funghi’, described on the menu as ‘sunflower-shaped pasta parcels filled with mushroom in a creamy mushroom and spinach sauce, with rocket and Granello cheese’ would be pleasant enough if the pasta were fully cooked. As it is, the elements are all present and in balance – I can certainly taste the mushrooms and the cheese and a decent kick of garlic to boot – but the chewiness of the pasta is too much of a distraction to allow any of them to be as enjoyable as they should be.
Plus, at £11.25, it also seems a bit over-priced for a chain. Even at Carluccio’s in Stratford, with its big-name chef seal of approval, I paid 26p less for a very similar dish. Granted, the décor there was nowhere near as much fun as here, but I wasn’t aware I had to pay extra for the privilege of eating beneath the gaze of a lot of judiciously-positioned tat and some colour wash from a tin labelled ‘Tuscan limestone’.
I don’t dislike Bella Italia. Its quirky, trend-divergent décor rather appeals to me. But for those of us with an interest in food, it’s worth asking how Coventry city centre will ever move beyond these middle-of-the-road chains if the population becomes so entirely student-dominated. We are not Oxford, with its ballast of tourists and upmarket shoppers. The council keeps telling us that it wants to build a ‘destination’ – but its efforts to create the mixed economy needed for this to become a reality seem to be going nowhere. In the meantime, with the university grabbing every available space, the city centre increasingly seems like a student ghetto.
Bella Italia, Belgrade Plaza, 4 Upper Well St, Coventry CV1 4BF. Panzerotti Funghi, £11.25