On a recent sunny Tuesday evening, the last remaining rush-hour traffic crawls past Prego, stationary drivers staring enviously at the diners sitting comfortably inside. The front terrace is empty now that the sun has passed over and doused the day’s earlier warmth, but inside half-a-dozen tables are filled.
The warm scents of Italian cooking pervade the dining room, which is decorated in earthy shades with big, dark wood tables and a long wooden bar. With the light coming in from the huge, double bay-front windows fading into a blue Autumnal evening, candles burn on every table and pretty white fairy lights decorate the specials boards and dessert menu.
On offer tonight is a good range of antipasti, starters and salads. Pizzas start from £9.95, made with a slow-proven sourdough base, with toppings including roasted figs, gorgonzola and caramelised red onion, or prosciutto crudo, rocket and parmesan. Pasta dishes, starting from £12.95 for a wild mushroom pappardelle, encompass some tried-and-tested old favourites like creamy carbonara, beef meatballs and seafood linguine.
As a nearby table chinks wine glasses, and another asks the adept, no-waitress for her recommendation – which she gives without hesitation – I opt for a sourdough garlic pizza base with rosemary (£4.95), followed by a pasta dish of Calabrian n’duja sausage and oven-roasted peppers in a tomato sauce with marscarpone cream (£12.95).
Upbeat music plays at a low level, diners chat effervescently over steaming plates of fish, spaghetti twirls in the air between forks and spoons, and a large glass of chilled, fruity, infinitely drinkable Italian white (£5.30) slips down a treat.
The sourdough arrives straight from the oven, blistered and steaming and sprinkled with fresh rosemary. Lightly salted and with a soft garlic flavour, it’s perfectly accompanied by a twist of black pepper and a dash of fiery homemade chilli oil. As outside, summer gives way to an Autumn chill, it feels like the culinary equivalent of snuggling into a big knitted jumper – warm, safe and comforting.
A woman at a nearby table – her son safely out of earshot – confides in the waitress as she comes to clear their plates. “He’s in the middle of fresher’s week,” she says with a concerned-mum smile, and it’s hard to imagine somewhere you’d rather be taken for a huge plate of comforting Italian food if you were feeling a little bit homesick, lost and wandering in Henleaze.
The pasta arrives hot in a generous portion, the Parmesan still so fresh that it hasn’t yet melted. The dish is a beautiful orange hue, interspersed with wilted green rocket and red slivers of roasted pepper and spicy n’duja. A sprinkling of breadcrumbs adds texture as the Parmesan melts away into the delicate, creamy sauce. It’s seasoned to perfection, the sausage adding undertones of heat with all the sharp edges removed; it simmers in the background but never underwhelms the more delicate flavours.
The orchiette pasta, shaped like flying saucers, is cooked to al dente perfection – though perhaps veers towards rubberiness in the residual heat, as its been made fairly thick. Regardless, it’s a beautiful, moreish dish that you could just as well eat in an upmarket Bristol restaurant as in a stone-walled cottage in Calabria.
As darkness falls, the last morsel is eaten and the plate whisked away as smartly-dressed couples and air-kissing old friends enter Prego for a midweek date nights, birthday dinners and special evenings out. The room fills again for a second sitting – more proof, if it was needed, of the quality of this unpretentious little restaurant.
The dessert menu looks tempting, particularly the rhubarb fool with biscotti (£5.95), but I refrain, full and warm from the pasta. As I’m settling the bill, the student and his dad put their jackets on and take a bonding walk outside to see what Bristol is all about, glancing across the now-quiet road into the lit windows of Mesa that glow enticingly. Mum follows them out into the cool air, an approving smile on her face. Her boy’s done good, and so has Prego.
7 North View, Westbury Park, BS6 7PT
0117 973 0496