I MAY have posed this rhetorical question before so forgive me: how many Italian restaurants can Darlington realistically support?

I only ask because in recent months, the numbers of establishments serving pizza, pasta and risotto have increased by a further two thanks to the town’s supa-dupa Feethams development. The new cinema has brought with it no fewer than seven eating places and two are Bella Italia and Prezzo, both Italian chain eateries.

Strictly speaking, Prezzo isn’t a chain as each restaurant is locally owned and run but unquestionably it is a formula eating experience with a common menu supposedly aimed at a slightly more upmarket, discerning crowd.

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Without doubt Prezzo Darlington is an impressively snazzy venue. It has the prime spot in the development Feethams on the upper level overlooking the roundabout, Victoria Road and, err, the back of the Royal Mail Delivery office. Although approached across a rather uninviting wind-blown plaza sandwiched between the new cinema and the huge Department of Education office block, once inside it looks and feels good.

Clean lines, strikingly black and white geometric flooring, spectacularly sculptural lighting and a variety of seating/table options suitable for romantic twosomes or riotous office parties, nearly all with views of downtown Darlington, make for a dining environment nowhere in this town can match. It is undeniably classy.

But that really was the best of our evening because the food was never better than fair to middling.

The menu has a familiar ring to it but the are some twists. All the standard pastas are featured, along with some interesting-sounding filled pastas (for example, crab and lobster tortelli with spinach and red chilli in a saffron sauce £13.59). The pizzas looked a bit different too. What is “executive” pizza, we wondered? Apart from being slightly bigger, slightly crispier and created by Prezzo’s “executive chef” with an executive price tag (£12 for a Marguerita!), not a lot.

We opted for one of the sharing platters to start with and I can only describe the Prezzo antipasto (£11.99 for two) as the most miserable, mean-spirited, formulaic, soulless collection of nibbles every assembled on a plate. It’s an affront to Italian cuisine.

It consisted of: Prosciutto (two slivers), salami Milano (two slices), salsiccia piccante (four nastily chillified discs the size of 2p piece), Burrata mozzarella (three small lumps), marinated olives (five – they were okay), sun-blushed tomatoes (six halved cherries with no taste at all – perhaps the sun hadn’t been shining), rocket (almost a generous handful) and sourdough (four rock-hard cubes). Oh and a little dish of oil and balsamic vinegar. We mustn’t forget that.

Our main courses were an improvement but not in such a way as to wipe away the memory of that pathetic excuse for an antipasto platter.

Sylvia’s chicken Calabrese (£13.79) was a char-grilled breast absolutely smothered in a characterless sauce. The ability to remove taste and flavour from a combination of tomato, peppers, Calabrese sausage, red onion, spinach and rosemary takes some doing. The side “house fries” (by the way, what does “house fries” actually mean?) were perfectly acceptable and instantly forgettable.

My sea bass fillets (£14.99) was the best thing put before us all night. Lightly floured and fried, the fillets had a nice crispy skin, were only marginally overcooked and were parked on top of a okay combo of asparagus, peas, spinach, lemon and basil pesto. It was only spoiled by more of those wretched, anaemic cherry tomato halves.

The fish came with a side of mashed potato that was lifeless and looked ever-slightly grey – but perhaps that was the lighting.

We ordered two puds. Sylvia’s Arctic Slice - vanilla ice cream, salted caramel and honeycomb sandwiched between sponge cake (£6.29) – was a sort of homage to a dessert which those of a certain age may have fond memories. In the early 1980s, Brits got through 25 miles of the stuff every month.

This was not bad. The sponge was thankfully not of the frozen carpet quality but it was very, very sweet.

My banoffee tiramisu (£6.39) was the Italian classic ruined by the addition of banana and caramel. What should be light and bitter-sweet was just stodgy and sweet.

Service was by no means poor but we didn’t get the impression that our waitresses’ hearts were really in it. They were a bit mob-handed for the number of customers and there was a fair bit of service duplication (being offered pre-prandial drinks and dessert menus twice for example). There were two head waiters who lounged around alternatively looking cool or anxiously looking at computer screens. They were probably worried that on a Friday night they weren’t busier.

Our bill was £70.94 which included a £17.49 bottle of Soave and that, even taking into account the uber-smart surroundings, doesn’t stack up in the current Italian restaurant market in Darlington. There are too many other places in town serving superior food with staff who know what they doing.

Prezzo’s days are probably numbered.

FOOD FACTS

Prezzo, Unit 9, Feethams Leisure, Feethams, Darlington, DL1 5RD

Tel: 01325-483382

Web: prezzorestaurants.co.uk

Open: Monday to Sunday: noon – 11.30pm

Disabled access. Pretty much all diets and allergies catered for

Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 6, Service 6, Surroundings 9, Value 5