Putting out a request for advice on where to eat in Norwich, the replies featured one name more than any other. It seemed clear that I should head for Benoli, an Italian eatery situated at the heart of the city, in the shadow of Norwich’s magnificent 11th-century castle and just a stone’s throw from the city’s remarkable marketplace. A last-minute booking, I managed to secure a table very early on a Friday evening; at 5:30pm. At that time of day I turned up half-expecting the full Mary Celeste experience, but found both floors – and presumably the recently refurbished third floor too – packed out with hungry clientele. I immediately came to two realisations. One, Benoli is very popular. Two, I had probably bagged the very last table.
Benoli is the creation of Oliver Boon – the name a mash-up of his first name and that of his brother, Ben – who trained under a string of famous names before relocating to Norwich. Having started out with Gordon Ramsay at the now-defunct The Maze Grill, he spent much of his formative years working with Bryn Williams at Odette’s, in Primrose Hill. From there he moved on to work with the Roux family at The Landau, were he took on the role of head chef. Although much of this early experience involved cooking in a French style, the blood that flowed in Oliver’s veins was more Italian, a childhood spent partly in southern Italy having had a deep impact on him. In 2019 he relocated to Norwich, to be closer to family, opening Benoli in July that year.
Having spent the best part of the afternoon installing my daughter in her student accommodation I had worked up a healthy appetite, so we started with a selection of snacks to keep us going while we awaited our antipasti and pasta dishes. Now forgive me if I spend an inordinate amount of time discussing these snacks and not the meal that followed but this introduction to Oliver’s cooking was an astonishing eye-opener. By sheer luck I chanced upon the parmesan croquettes, two delicious spheres of goodness, each one with a core of mozzarella, parmesan and potato, wrapped up in capelli pasta before being deep-fried and then smothered in another mountain of parmesan. Crunchy on the outside, the core oozed what was in essence a thick mozzarella-parmesan cream, delicious enough to bring a smile to the face of any long-distance-driving, box-and-suitcase-lugging parent. I enjoyed the pagnotta bread we also ordered, with its olive oil, balsamic and saba dip, but one niggle here; serving these condiments in a bowl means the oil always floats above the balsamic, and it becomes impossible to get at the latter. I was tempted to tip it all out onto a plate, but before long the bread was gone, and it was soon forgotten. The memory of that parmesan croquette, however, will linger for a long time. If you come to Benoli, you simply have to order them. I insist.
Right, now that I have that off my chest, what about the rest of the meal? I kicked off with a courgette flower stuffed with salted ricotta, lightly fried and dressed with chestnut honey and a basil sauce. This was good, the stem nicely cooked, the ricotta rich and creamy, although the small lake of basil sauce upon which it floated was a little overwhelming in its presence; it was certainly a case of less would have been more. I also had a bite of the cod and nduja kiev, a blend of cod and spicy southern Italian sausage (the nduja), on a bed of baccala (whipped dried cod), all wrapped in a crunchy breadcrumb crust, which all worked well together. Indeed if I ate here again I would order this before I revisit the courgette flower.
To my mind the main course kicked it up a notch, as I went for a very simple dish of parmesan-stuffed agnolotti with porcini and summer truffles. There was nothing here not to like; the agnolotti pasta was deliriously al dente, and every stab with the knife brought forth an oozing parmesan cream. The slices of truffle were plentiful in number and delicately flavoured, the porcini less prominent but beautifully pungent in its flavour, so I think the balance here was spot on. And the flavours I found in the one bite of the seafood risotto I was permitted were also delicious.
The wine list is short, but well chosen (even if it is obviously sourced exclusively from the trade arm of a well-known national retailer), and entirely Italian. I dived in with both eyes closed with a glass of a 2019 Falanghina listed under Beloni’s own label, which had lightly dried fruit character and an intriguingly bitter twist. I followed up with a glass of 2019 Passimento Bianco, which I suspect is the Pasqua PassionSentimento label (the wine list isn’t exactly dripping with exacting descriptions). Higher up the list, however, the choices get really interesting, with Pieropan Soave Classico, Planeta Chardonnay, Guidalberto from Tenuta San Guido and Le Serre Nuove Dell’Ornellaia from Antinori, and while the mark ups at the bottom end appear to be the fairly standard 300% of retail price, at the top end the mark ups were considerably lower; ranging from 150% to 180% on some of the aforementioned famous labels. I know from which end of the list I will be drinking if I am ever fortunate enough to return here.
Benoli delivered on the day, and while I preferred that simply dreamy parmesan croquette and my porcini and truffle pasta to my starter, this was a good end to what had been a long and tiring day. Quality is good, but at a fair price, and with an ‘everybody’s welcome’, no ‘airs and graces’ feel to the dining experience this is the perfect spot to wind down. It was clear to me, at the end of my meal, why the recommendations for Benoli came thick and fast. I would be delighted to return here.
Prices: The bill came to £82.10 which also included one non-alcoholic cocktail as well as the dishes mentioned above. The bread was £3.50, parmesan croquettes £5 (must have a double helping next time, or maybe even an entire platter), courgette flower £9, the cod and nduja kiev £9, the seafood ravioli £18 and the parmesan agnolotti £16. At the time of writing the by-the-glass options ranged from £5.90 to £9.40 for 175 ml, and the bottles start at a very reasonable £22.50, topping out at £54 for the 2018 Planeta Chardonnay and £73 for the 2017 Le Serre Nuove Dell’Ornellaia. (22/10/21)