When in Rome Caffè Nero, a former Sammies award winner, has lost none of its touch with quality food, but could it be missing out on an opportunity to make more of its Italian heritage, asks Nellie Nichols?
There is nothing worse than a reformed smoker. Their holier than thou attitude and dull success story of how they gave up is just purgatory to have to listen to. I should know, I am one. Here we are on the cusp of that long awaited day, 1st July and everyone is cramming in one last puff in a public building. Here on in it’s down the alleyway or nothing.
Along the high street the very last haven for a coffee and a fag was in Caffè Nero. Despite liking their coffee I had to give them up too as the compulsory passive smoking I was doing in there was equivalent to at least half a pack and then I always had to rush home to wash my hair and change my clothes.
(This played havoc with my diary so I converted to Illy). Well in advance of the ban Nero is now smoke free. I don’t know what it has done to their sales but perhaps there are other abdicators like me who have now returned. Founded in 1997 with over 300 stores in the UK, Nero provides a ‘European style coffee house experience’ with ‘authentic Italian food products’.
Without doubt it has an inviting atmosphere, slightly more grown up than some of the other sofa and pushchair filled coffee bars. Comfortable yet sensible seating with lots of wooden interior, it ticks the meeting, working professional environment that is so sought after now. Whilst the wide variety of different food categories is very apparent, the actual choice in say sandwiches is quite small in some of the stores.
For my return to a smoke free breakfast I tried their Ham & Egg Panini (£2.00) and their Italian Tuna Melt Panini (£3.25). The Ham and Egg is very good and comes with Gruyere Cheese, Hollandaise and Dijon Mustard. The Gammon ham is thick and delicious and not the slimy rubbery watery stuff so often used. There is a slight acidity to the product though that I think is coming from the mustard which is fighting a bit with the Hollandaise. I rounded and creamy taste, especially as this is a breakfast product.
The Italian Tuna Melt is a large generous eat, well filled with not only Mozzarella but also Cheddar cheeses. Again there is an acidity which I could live without, which may be coming from the Wholegrain Mustard but all in all a very good product, perhaps because of the addition of the very tasty tomatoes.
(I wonder what they really are; described as Oven Roasted on the web, and then both semi-dried and ‘Sunsweet’ on the label?) The Spicy Chicken Hot Wrap (£3.00) with mixed vegetables in a chilli sauce (but elsewhere is described as a jam?), tomato salsa, rocket and basil, I decided to have cold. A very generous product again, which is filled with lots of moist good chicken breast, but the rocket was very tired and wilted.
The chilli sauce/jam had the right heat (not that often overpowering ‘blow your head off’ taste). This one is also a bonus at less than 5% Fat and proves that a good tasty option is more than possible whilst still achieving the low fat status. Obviously I had to try a sandwich while I was there and went for the Feta Cheese and Rocket with Basil Mayonnaise on Tomato and Olive Oil Bread.
I’ve never seen such huge pieces of feta in a sandwich – generous to say the least and delicious. Here again though there is a difference in labelling information with reference to both sun dried and fresh tomatoes. This is a nice summer sandwich, perhaps only improved by the addition of another crisper or crunchier texture. There is no doubt Nero are very strong on a lot of their products.
A good example of this is their drinks range – their coffee menu is good and extensive and I’ve always liked the idea of the iced drinks which they prepare and put on the langers that you then take to get blitzed with ice at the counter. This saves time for everyone and is an innovative idea.
They also make an attractive display of colours on the shelf – I particularly like the Barbie pink and green ones (strawberry and mint respectively) and there is a good choice of pastries, muffins and cakes, in fact nothing generally truly disappoints.
And yet… I just see this huge untapped window of wonderful development opportunity just ripe for the picking in the tapestry of Italian regions with their speciality ingredients and food heritage.
The Capra Goat and Fontina Cheeses from the Valle d’Aosta region, the world famous Pesto and Focaccia from Liguria, the black winter truffles and wonderful pale green Lenticchie lentils from Umbria, the Lampascioni bitter wild onions the size of marbles from Basilicata, delicious Provolone cheese from Calabria, Carciofi (artichokes) from Lazio….
Italy has the widest and richest spectrum of food of any country I can think of and one that has the power to revolutionise along with providing unlimited provenance and endless marketing scope.
Surely this is an unmissable opportunity and one that would provide a more dynamic bedrock than the likes of egg mayonnaise and BLT’s and one that any competitor would surely be green with envy to have so readably available?