It’s been a while since we’ve had a proper sit down at La Cantina 44, the charming little Italian restaurant tucked away in the Leeds suburb of Cross Gates and I was prepared for plenty of changes to have taken place in the meantime.
Not a bit of it. It was if we’d only been there the week before, it was so familiar, a real home from home.
We’d only booked our table that afternoon on a whim and managed to secure the very last slot available, 6.30-8pm, on the promise we’d be away by the appointed hour to make way for the next occupants of our table.
Parking nearby proved initially problematic, the road was being dug up - there were barriers everywhere and all available on-street slots were taken.
We eventually managed to squeeze in down a side street not too far away.
On arrival we were shown to a pleasant table by the window and were just settling in to cast our eyes over the menu, when we were uprooted with profuse apologies and shunted to a table near the back of the room.
Attentive staff zip between closely-packed tables, scarcely missing a beat - this is a real ‘home from home’ experience and value for money
Apparently our table was earmarked for a party of three and the waiter hadn’t been advised of the fact before we’d arrived.
La Cantina was shortlisted for Best Italian at this year’s Oliver Awards and has a rock solid reputation. It has been a fixture of the Cross Gates dining scene for as long as I can remember and it was clear that many of the diners that Sunday evening were locals who’d also been visiting for years and were well known to the staff, who greeted them like old friends.
One family were celebrating their daughter’s birthday and so were rewarded by a pre-recorded rendering of Happy Birthday and the obligatory sparkler in their desserts.
Another table of 12 or so were also celebrating a special anniversary and there was plenty of hugging and backslapping going on as they greeted long lost friends and family members.
It’s a phenomenally busy little place, even the tables outside were fully occupied, a couple with their baby were enjoying the early evening sun and another couple were taking advantage of dining al fresco to have a smoke between courses.
And that is really the only problem with La Cantina. It’s so cosy and compact, with tables crammed in close together that when in full swing, as it was on the evening we visited, the noise level is high.
But surely this is the mark of a good restaurant, which must be judged by its popularity.
Hats off to the staff, too, who were very attentive and friendly, zipping between the closely-packed tables.
Once we’d settled at our new table, menus were handed over, drinks were ordered - two pints of Peroni - and the serious business of choosing the food began. We had a quick look at the online menu before we left home so there were no real surprises, just plenty of traditional Italian favourites such as pizza and pasta with a few other classic dishes, including chicken supreme; chicken breast with a creamy pesto sauce; chicken peri peri; braised topside of Yorkshire beef and braised lamb shank. There’s also a specials board for an even greater variety.
I was determined to order from the main menu and to choose some of the healthiest dishes I could and so opted for insalata caprese, a tasty selection of baby mozarella, tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and a fresh basil dressing (£5.25).
The dish was nicely presented, light and refreshing and set me up nicely for the main event.
I suppose the tropical melon (£4.75) which consisted of fanned melon, kiwi fruit, passion fruit and strawberries in a honey glazed dressing would have been the obvious choice if I’d really wanted to cut down on the calories still further.
My companion, a fan of red meat in all its many guises, plumped for locally farmed pork spare ribs in homemade orange and barbecue sauce (£6.75).
I know spare ribs are not the easiest of dishes to dress up for the table, but the dish could possibly have done with a little bit more garnish.
Having said that, I was informed that the taste more than made up for it: the orange zest cutting through the barbecue sauce for a delicious combination of sweet and sour flavours.
On to the main courses. grilled salmon with mixed salad for me (£11.95) and grilled sirloin steak with a spicy tomato sauce, onions, peppers and fries for my companion.
The steak arrived rare, rather than medium rare, as requested and, again, could possibly have done with a little bit of plate decoration but on the whole, was satisfying enough.
My salmon was beautifully cooked and the herbs in the salad dressing complemented, rather than overwhelmed, the salad, so this was, at least a complete success and a good choice.
In the interests of balanced reporting we thought it only right to sample the sweet menu and although nothing really took my fancy, I eventually decided on the New York-style cheesecake (£4.50) with a sponge base and flavoured with lime juice which, as it turned out, was quite delicious.
My companion went for his perennially favourite dish of profiteroles (£4.50), which were large, chocolaty and stuffed with cream and as good as he’d had anywhere.
We declined coffee and the complementary shot of liquer and asked for the bill which came to a very reasonable £58.80 for two and included drinks.
Overall, it was a most respectable outcome in my opinion. La Casita continues to prove its worth.
La Cantina 44
Address: 12 Austhorpe Road, Cross Gates, Leeds
Tel: 0113 368 0066
Opening times: Tuesday–Saturday 5:30–10pm; Sunday 2pm–9pm; closed Mondays