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Restaurant review: Great Italian cooking with a 1970s flavour at Ciao Sorrento in Dundee

Melanzane Al Parmigiana and garlic bread at Ciao Sorrento. Picture by Kim Cessford/DCT Media.
Melanzane Al Parmigiana and garlic bread at Ciao Sorrento. Picture by Kim Cessford/DCT Media.

Every city needs a good, dependable Italian restaurant and I had high hopes that Ciao Sorrento is perhaps fulfilling that role for Dundee.

That it does so to a degree will probably be enough for people who have been coming to this Union Street institution for decades. However, for those of us rediscovering this stalwart of Dundee dining, it might prove a slightly frustrating experience, given that eating here proves to be such a time warp.

Depending on your expectations, Ciao Sorrento is either just Italian enough to pass muster when you feel like a bowl of pasta on a Monday night, or it’s somewhere in need of a bit of reinvention.

I imagine the true picture is somewhere in the middle.

Readers of a certain vintage will remember this place as the T-Bone, a steak house my mother loved so much she just referred to it as Milly’s (Milly was the owner). Mum would go there often but took me just the once, although it proved a distinctly memorable night – and not just because of the food.

Although it was many, many years ago I remember that meal with mum and her partner like it was yesterday – mainly because it started a night of such bacchanalian revelry that my mum ended up verbally attacking her local councillor in the casino.

The cause of her drink-fuelled ire was a disabled parking space that had been installed near her house in Brantwood Avenue. I pitied that poor councillor then and it’s only now, decades later, that I’m able to walk through the doors of Ciao Sorrento at 19 Union Street and not feel a sense of shame, like returning to a crime scene, hoping there’s no mug shot on the wall.

It’s funny because returning to Ciao Sorrento feels a bit like walking through a time tunnel anyway, a happy land where the recent discovery of a 1973 ad for 19 Union Street promised an elegant and sophisticated atmosphere and what was called a “Business Men’s Lunch” for 55p.

Outside Ciao Sorrento.

I have no idea whether businesswomen paid more.

Now, 50 years later, 55p for a T-Bone steak might seem unfathomable at a time when the democratisation of food has led us to Nando’s and McDonalds, but back then it was largely steak houses and Italian restaurants that propelled the UK out of the culinary doldrums.

The fondness of British diners for Italian cuisine gained traction in the 1960s and it’s probably true to say that we still turn to Italian food for reliable comfort today.

A recent YouGov study named Italian cuisine as the most popular in the world, with British consumers regularly voting pasta dishes into their top 10 favourites. According to a report on the Speciality Food website ( the spring lockdown of 2020 saw many supermarket shelves left bare of Italian produce like pasta and tinned tomatoes, with many consumers panic- buying such cupboard staples.

There is still little to beat a plate of pasta for budget eating and the mark-up on pasta dishes in restaurants makes it an attractive proposition for trattorias to offer up and down the UK.

Italian cuisine has a long history with the UK.

However, what the last few decades have taught us about Italian food is that Italian country cooking – cucina rustica – is something that is fairly easy to replicate in the home, because most of it originated in a domestic environment anyway.
As Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers wrote in their introduction to their seminal River Cafe Cookbook – “we feel our recipes are accessible to anyone cooking at home. We took our Italian knowledge and recipes from the domestic kitchen to the restaurant – our book now returns
them there”.

The new style of Italian cooking introduced to the UK in 1987 by the River Cafe would go on to influence much of what would follow but it came at a price because some of the quality ingredients so intrinsic to this new Italian cooking didn’t come cheap.

However, my own regular Monday night supper is often just a simple pasta with a sauce made from Mutti tinned Italian tomatoes, garlic, balsamic vinegar and parmesan.

Drizzled with Capezzana olive oil, and scattered with basil, this is a simple dish that relies on good ingredients and a long, patient cooking of the sauce to succeed.
Sometimes, though, you want a bit more than this when the cupboards are bare and thus it was to Ciao Sorrento that we went on a recent Monday night, relieved to find it open on a day of the week when many other Dundee restaurants are closed.

Ciao Sorrento

When I told friends I was writing about this place, quite a few said they had never been into it, although they had walked past it many times. I wonder if this could be because you can’t really see into the space when you walk past – the bottom part of the window is frosted and the menu is displayed above that, so you have little sense of the interior from the street.

The pillar-box red frontage is certainly eye catching and the words “pizzeria ristorante” won’t see anyone sued under the Trades Descriptions Act.

Inside is a charmingly dated space of the type that would probably be rediscovered by cool kids, were it only situated in Bethnal Green or Bow in London.

Inside the venue.

I can totally see why my mum loved this place because so much of the interior reflects her own design tastes from the 1970s, often labelled the decade that taste forgot – the textured wallpaper on both walls and ceiling, the plates hung on the wall, the garlands of plastic flowers and fruit, the cheery yellow paintwork… it’s all very much a look from a time when parmesan came ready grated and pepper was a grey powder in a tub.

Despite all these throwback memories of my youth though, I don’t ever recall us having a condom machine in our bathroom offering two exotic coloured condoms for £1, as is the case in the very 1970s toilets here at Ciao Sorrento.

A decorative plate lines the wall of the eatery.

The food

This is a traditional menu which won’t frighten anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Italian food served in the UK for decades. In fact, I found a very similar menu in a trattoria in Manchester recently, giving hope against the inexorable march of progress fuelled by £30 bottles of extra virgin olive oil.

There’s prosciutto e melone (£7.95) which isn’t the only Abigail’s Party memory here; funghi ripieni (£7.95) is deep fried breadcrumbed mushrooms with either mozzarella or chicken pate, while smoked salmon (£8.90) comes with prawns and Marie Rose sauce.

Insalata Caprese.

David started with insalata caprese (£7.95) which was mozzarella with tomato, extra virgin olive oil, oregano and fresh basil.

The portion was plentiful – eight slices of cheese sandwiched between chunks of tomato – but the dish fell down through the quality of the ingredients, especially the tomatoes which were quite tasteless.

I had stracciatella alla Romana (£4.50), and it was pretty good, the broth quite light and the egg and parmesan mix pleasant enough.

Stracciatella Alla Romana and garlic bread.

I feel that this soup would be improved by the addition of lemon – or more lemon – as described in the Italian cooking bible that is Marcella Hazan’s The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking but, nevertheless, this was a good example of the lightness and delicacy of the Romagna region. By the way, do not order this soup if you’re concerned about things looking as they are – because this is not a soup that looks in any way beguiling! Tastes good though.

Service here is friendly and well-practiced. Our waiter looked straight from Central Casting in that he was dressed in a white shirt, tight black trousers and chest hair. If he’d only appeared with a huge pepper mill we could have perfectly replayed that classic Victoria Wood sketch where Wood and Julie Walters are bemused by an Italian waiter brandishing a grinder of such gargantuan proportions it suggested an intimacy not normally offered before a large amaretto.

Melanzane Al Parmigiana.

David’s main course of melanzane al parmigiana (£12.95) tasted great but wasn’t layered enough to do justice to this dish which helped define Italian cooking for a generation. Served piping hot in a Le Creuset casserole dish, this was good, classic cooking but seemed a bit like an express version rather than the multi-layered classic of lore.

My pasta dish of tagliatelle Romana (£12.95) was also good, the pasta perfectly cooked and the bolognese sauce, peas, mushrooms, pepperoni and parmesan coming together to create a harmonious plateful of goodness.

Tagliatelle Romana and Isalata Verde in the background.

A green salad (£3.95) was good, as was some garlic bread we shared (£3.50).
All desserts are £5.95 and we both chose the semifreddo menta bianco e cioccolato, a delicious white mint ice cream with chocolate at its heart, hugely boosted by a dash of Glayva liqueur. As far as I can tell most desserts seem to be offered with some alcohol sloshed over, which is fine with me.

The verdict

Ciao Sorrento is definitely somewhere to cherish and I have to say I coveted the delicious-looking pizzas ordered by the couple on the next table. All pizzas are £11.95 and a fiorucci is what I’ll be ordering next time.

I love that this place still exists, and I love that it doesn’t seem to have changed much. A trip to the toilets is as much a trip back in time as is poring over the photos and cards pinned to a board, all memories from happy customers over the years.

The quirky lighting.

As such this place defines the idea of family and food which is at the heart of Italian cuisine. It’s a classic of its type and it shouldn’t be taken for granted.

However, I do think a few tweaks to the menu would go quite a long way to prepare this Dundee classic for the future, although I’m sure the owners and their happy customers would say that they’re doing very well as they are.

If you like old school, you’ll love it here, a place that has history and is very much part of the city’s food tradition.


Address: Ciao Sorrento, 19 Union Street, Dundee DD1 4BN

T:  01382 221760


Price: Starters from £4.50, mains from £12.95; desserts from £5.95


  • Food:4/5
  • Service:5/5
  • Surroundings: 4/5

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