For a while now I’ve thought of Cena as that new Italian restaurant in Yarm High Street.

It’s been on the “Reviews To Do” list for all that time but somehow we never got round to it.

So it was something of a shock to finally turn up last week to discover it’s been open NINE YEARS. The best part of a decade – almost before the beginning of time.

Not really new then. In fact, as restaurants in Yarm High Street go, nine years is the equivalent of veteran status.


Eating Out at Cena in Yarm

Eating Out at Cena in Yarm


And talking of veterans we should mention Cena’s maitre’d and partner Peter Huggins who has been looking after diners in Yarm for a long time. I don’t mean to be rude but his status is verging on that of an institution. The last time we bumped into him was across the road in Muse and that must have been at least ten years ago.

Gratifyingly, he remembered us – one of the rare occasions when our ‘mystery shopper’ status and cover was comprehensively blown.

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But it seemed to matter not one jot. We didn’t get special attention – at least no more than anyone else.

Peter is the epitome of the consummate hospitality professional – gliding around his domain, squirting a bit of oil (extra virgin, of course) into the mechanism when it looks like it might be getting a little sticky – welcoming everyone with his understated charm. Service was excellent throughout and it was the same for everyone there on a busy midweek evening.


Eating Out at Cena in Yarm

Eating Out at Cena in Yarm


A Cena aficionado had warned us against a table at the rear near to the massive pizza oven and as it was one of those recent Indian Summer days when the temperature had reached 27C our hearts sank slightly as Peter steered us towards the back where most of the tables were already taken.

But despite the good-looking pizzas coming out of the spectacular flaming oven at regular intervals, we stayed cool thanks to a well-positioned air con unit. Phew.

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The tables are quite close together but like most restaurants in Yarm’s Georgian High Street it’s a narrow space stretching front to back which makes for a cozy but buzzy atmosphere even when not all the tables are taken.


Eating Out at Cena in Yarm

Eating Out at Cena in Yarm


We had arrived fairly early but by 7.30 the place was full. Not bad for mid-week evening with the holidays just over.

The interior is classy and comfortable – particularly the banquette seating – despite the volume of Italian ephemera in every nook and cranny. The mural representative of typical Venetian vistas sounds tacky but wasn’t.

Read more food reviews in our Eating Out section

The menu is a clever combination of Italian traditional dishes and a more contemporary take on the national cuisine.

So, classic lasagne and Margherita pizza sits alongside braised beef cheek and stuffed porchetta. Certainly, if you tire of the predictable choices offered by your average Italian restaurant in this part of the world, you’ll find Cena’s rather more exciting.

We started by sharing lamb meatballs roasted in a tomato sauce with mozzarella and toasted focaccia plus some fried halloumi (both £7.95).

The meatballs were rather firm but the tomato sauce had a sweet depth of flavour which could only come from a long, slow roasting of quality toms with lots of herbs.

The halloumi had the required squeaky texture and the light pomegranate salsa and basil yoghurt dressing was the ideal foil for the fatness of the fried cheese.


Eating Out at Cena in Yarm

Eating Out at Cena in Yarm


The execution of Sylvia’s Italian standard chicken Milanese (£15.95) was peerless. The flattened chicken breast pieces, lightly fried in breadcrumbs, topped with good quality mozzarella and sundried tomato sauce was rich, moist, meltingly tender, ever-so slightly crisp in the right places and accompanied by oregano crushed new potatoes. A beautiful dish.

My roasted hake (£18.95) was equally easy on the eye. A chunky slab of firmed-fleshed gleamingly-white fish sat on top of a shellfish risotto with crayfish and a sumptuous crab butter sauce. Yum, yum, yum.

The richness of what we had eaten ruled out consideration of desserts. A menu of STP, brownie, tiramisu, pannacotta was strong on the classics but lacking on the contemporary take of the rest of the menu, we thought. Having said that we were rather tempted by – but successfully resisted – the limoncello-macerated raspberries with the baked vanilla cheesecake (£7.95).

All round a super meal in splendid surroundings, looked after by a great team. And we thought it pretty good value too. Our bill, which included some glasses of wine and a ten per cent discretionary service charge (which we were very happy to pay), came to just over £77.


85 High Street, Yarm TS15 9BG

Tel: 01642 780088


Open: noon-9pm Monday to Thursday, noon-9.30pm Friday and Saturday, noon-8.30pm Sunday.

Ratings (out of ten): Food quality 10, Service 10, Surroundings 9, Value 9