ITALIAN cuisine is one of my favourites - especially when it comes to eating out. So when my colleague Katie came in to the office one morning raving about her experience at Maximo's in Castle Eden, near Peterlee, I decided to give it a try. Initially I booked a table for my friend Helen and I on a Monday night but ice and snow led us to postpone the meal until Thursday. Staff were understanding about our change of plan and this friendly approach characterised the service we later received.

We arrived slightly late for our 7.30pm booking due to getting lost en route and again staff showed no sign of our tardiness being an issue.

The restaurant is located in The Old Brewery, a rather swanky business centre next to the golf course. We could smell the aroma of herbs and pizza baking in the oven before we saw the entrance to Maximo's. The restaurant emanated a warm glow, which was all the more welcoming given the freezing temperatures outside.

We were greeted by a man who showed us to a lovely spacious table in the centre of the restaurant. From here I was well positioned to admire the restaurant's décor which I would describe as traditional Italian meets modern brasserie. Soft lighting bounced off the cream and apricot coloured walls creating a cosy and relaxed atmosphere, while the dark wood floors and furniture added a stylish edge. There were a few other groups in at the time, including a large party and the gentle hum of conversation added to the relaxed vibe.

The gentleman handed us menus and asked if we would like some bread for the table. We did and asked for some olives too. A few minutes later a waitress arrived to take our drinks order. Helen opted for a large glass of the house white wine (£4.95) while I ordered a Diet Coke (£1.75). Shortly after our drinks arrived and we were presented with a large bowl of olives marinated in garlic and olive oil and four slices of soft white bread. The olives were delicious although those who are not a fan of garlic may need to point this out when ordering as this appetiser would certainly keep the vampires away.

We managed to prise ourselves away from the olives long enough to give our order and then tucked into the bread, which I discovered was even tastier when dunked into the garlic-infused olive oil.

Our starters arrived about ten minutes later and I was pleased to note the generous portion size. Helen had settled on the insalata caprese (£4.95), a traditional salad of tomato, basil leaves and mozzarella. She said the fresh zingy tomatoes cut through the creamy mozzarella, which was set off to perfection by the fragrant basil. Her only criticism was the lack of dressing on the salad, which she assumed would be drizzled in oil and balsamic vinegar. When she asked for oil and vinegar she received olive oil and a sharp vinegar intended for chips.

I opted for the funghi benito (£5.50), comprising mushrooms stuffed with mozzarella and basil and wrapped in Parma ham. I received two good-sized mushrooms, which were packed full of flavour. The combination of ingredients and textures was perfection itself and I savoured every mouthful.

Once we finished, our starter plates were swiftly cleared by another friendly waitress who returned with fresh cutlery. We did not have to wait long for our main courses and were both delighted with our choices.

Helen settled on the pollo Kiev (£10.95). This comprised a chicken breast stuffed with garlic butter and pate, covered in breadcrumbs and deep fried. The dish came with a choice of seasonal vegetables or chips, with Helen plumping for the latter.

The chicken Kiev was unlike the flat bland variety that was all the rage at 1970s dinner parties. It was a majestic sight, standing tall and surrounded by fresh salad. "Ooh look inside," said Helen, as she cut into it and discovered the garlic butter and rich pate within. The homemade chips also received rave reviews.

After much deliberation, I had ordered spaghetti Bolognese (£6.95). I was presented with a steaming dish of meat and pasta which smelt as good as it looked. I took up the waitress' offer of black pepper and parmesan and got stuck in. The pasta was well cooked and the meat sauce was lovely. I am also pleased to report I ate the whole bowl without getting Bolognese sauce on my shirt or face.

Unfortunately, Helen and I were too full to try one of the scrumptious-sounding desserts on offer, although we were certainly tempted by the Eton mess cheese cake and the chocolate brownies and ice cream recommended by Katie. Maximo's promises a taste of Italy and, based on my experience, it delivers. Our bill was £37.35, which I believe is a fair price given the standard of the food, the stylish dining area and excellent service. There is also a happy hour menu for those looking for cheaper alternatives. I look forward to returning to Maximo's in the future. I just hope the brownies are still on the menu.

Maximo's, The Old Brewery, Castle Eden, County Durham, TS27 4SU

Opening hours: 12.30pm to 2.30pm and 5.30pm onwards, Monday to Saturday, and noon to 3pm and 6pm to 9pm, Sunday.

Food quality 9, service 9, surroundings 9, value 8