La Romantica: I tried one of Essex's oldest Italian restaurants and it left me desperate for more

La Romantica in Rayleigh
La Romantica in Rayleigh -Credit:Matt Lee/EssexLive

From the moment you walk into La Romantica it's like stepping into someone else's home: both in terms of the caring welcome and the tasty food on offer. The restaurant's home, a cosy Grade II listed cottage converted into a restaurant and overlooked by the beautiful 15th Century Holy Trinity Church, maintains its homely feel with warm lighting and colourful artwork lining the walls.

It's almost 7pm on a Friday night by the time I enter from the area's High Street, filled on a weekly occasion with its market stalls and bustling trade. It's a rather ghostly road on my arrival and it's equally quiet inside La Romantica, but that's not for too much longer.

The Italian restaurant proclaims itself as being Rayleigh's oldest independent serving Italian restaurant and pizzeria. Set upon one floor the Italian restaurant has a space packed with tables and chairs of various sizes whilst a large bar space - offering a huge array of alcoholic beverages - overlooks the seating area.

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I take a pew with my back to the large windows that open onto the High Street. On arrival it was relatively quiet, but after half hour or so ahead of me sits various couples on date nights, friends meeting for a catch-up and families gathering together.

It's a friendly welcome whether it's your first visit or you're a regular. A smiling gentleman greeted my wife and me as we stepped inside; later on, a young family were beckoned inside: "Welcome back, how are you all doing" one staff member said whilst offering a high-five to a youngster in a West Ham United kit.

La Romantica in Rayleigh is set in a Grade II listed building on the High Street
La Romantica in Rayleigh is set in a Grade II listed building on the High Street -Credit:Matt Lee/EssexLive

With more than 50 years of experience, La Romantica has had plenty of time to master the food they offer. Their competitive set menus start at just £13.95 - cheaper than offerings at the nearby Pizza Express - and were clearly crafted within a wandering distance of our table as the incredible smells of what was cooking wafted throughout the restaurant.

My evening starts with the Funghi Ripieni (£8.95), a field mushroom stuffed with a creamy blue cheese, topped with crispy bacon, grilled chives and rocket. The cheesy sauce was full of flavour with the salted bacon pieces providing a colourful crunch and tasty contrast.

The excellently seasoned and perfectly crisp and light to eat Pane All'Aglio (£4.95) - a 12-inch garlic bread pizza - was shared by my wife and me as a side for our main courses. A Marinara (£16.95) was my chosen main dish, comprising tagliatelle with seasonal seafood, garlic, and a white wine and tomato sauce.

The smooth sauce complimented the chunky fish and provided a nice crunch. It's a seafood-lovers' dream with prawns, muscles and calamari all included.

Established in 1969, the family-run restaurant also claims to live by the motto 'Let Our Family Look After Yours' - something they exceed at. Locals in this part of Essex might be frustrated by the sheer number of Italian eateries on the Rayleigh High Street.

Chains such as Prezzo and Pizza Express are sandwiched on either side by independent eateries in the form of La Romantica and the newly-opened L'Ancora. There are four restaurants offering Italian food on a tiny 0.2-mile stretch of road.

Competition is, however, a healthy thing with each eatery certain to push the others forward in striving to provide good quality food and service. That's certainly the case at La Romantica where they lead the way in that journey.

This article is part of EssexLive's series Essex Eats where a member of our team reviews an independent food business in the county. We don't tell the business we're coming and we don't tell them who we are while we're there. Every meal for EssexEats is paid for by us and not gifted. Check back every Thursday for our top pick that week of a great food spot in Essex.