STEPPING into this small, unassuming restaurant, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d suddenly been teleported into a trattoria off the backstreets of any Italian city.

The intimate, wood-panelled dining room, with bottles of wine and maps of Sicily adorning the walls, is homely and authentic, and we felt instantly at ease in such relaxing surroundings.

Our waiter – who was also obviously the owner, given the pride he took in his work – added to this feeling with his friendly, welcoming demeanour.

We ordered a garlic bread to share while we waited for our starters. In hindsight, this was perhaps an unnecessary addition given the generous portions yet to come, but at the time was enthusiastically devoured. It was of the thin, crispy pizza base variety, the garlic taste was subtle, and it was decidedly moreish.

The waiter/owner also brought out a large complimentary bowl of mixed olives. My girlfriend is not a fan (olives taste like mould, apparently), so I was left to plough my way happily through them myself.

For starters, we had both opted for a mushroom dish (we are both vegetarian and the choice on the La Pizzeria menu was ample). My funghi piccante – mushrooms smothered in a creamy, perfectly- spiced sauce – was absolutely fantastic. (The waiter/owner had asked me how hot I wanted it and got it spot on.) My girlfriend’s funghi alla Pizzeria – a baked mushroom dish with vegetables, tomato sauce and mozzarella – also went down very well.

Apparently, a custom-made pizza oven was shipped over from Sicily to La Pizzeria at considerable expense, so it seemed only right I checked out what it could produce and ordered the pizza vegetariana.

Thin, crispy and topped with artichokes, olives, mushrooms and onion, it tasted as good as any I’ve had in Italy.

My girlfriend, who is not renowned for her adventurous palate, went for spaghetti al pomodoro. She described it as fresh and tangy, with the pasta cooked perfectly al dente.

We had just a small space in our dessert tummies, so decided to share a portion of the homemade Sicilian lemon and honey cheesecake.

It was rich, rustic and utterly delicious, the lemony aftertaste cutting through the sweet honey and creamy ricotta perfectly.

I had arrived famished and weary, having foolishly spent the morning slogging my way through the muddy hell of the Benfleet 15-mile race, but left La Pizzeria with a full tummy and a big smile.