Rico’s promises the kind of experience that evokes thoughts of lazy evenings in sunny Mediterranean climes.
That was an appealing notion as we stepped through the doors on a typically abysmal Thursday night in March.
Despite the dreary conditions, the restaurant was packed, clearly with many customers for whom the Oakwood eatery is a regular destination – there was an affable familiarity between lots of the diners and the staff that made for a warmth in stark contrast to the dank outside.
In a part of the city where businesses come and go at a fairly bewildering rate, Rico’s has managed to hold its own.
The aforementioned personable familiarity – reminiscent of the welcoming embrace to be found in family-run trattorias across Italy – is part of its charm.
The reassuring familiarity of the classic menu is another.
Greeted by a gregarious chap at the door, we were guided to a table on a raised level at the back of the restaurant close to the kitchen.
The decor is unspectacular – marble-topped tables and wood floors, grey walls and framed pictures of Italian vistas make for a fairly standard interior space.
From the staters, I chose the gamberoni Rico, reasoning that if the dish carries the name of the boss it must be something fairly special.
At £8.30, it was the most expensive item on the list of entrees, but the portion was suitably generous, containing six super-sized prawns along with a healthy side salad.
They came swimming in a sauce which provided the distinctly tangible and well balanced flavours of garlic, parsley and white wine. It was undeniably delicious.
However, a bit like designer clothes on a plain Milanese catwalk model, the prawns themselves let down the quality of their dressing.
While lacking nothing in stature, they had a rubbery texture that smacked of over-cooking.
I didn’t drop one on the floor, but, had I done so, it may well have bounced right back onto the plate.
In contrast, my dining partner’s Italian-flag themed insalata tricolore (£6.95) was a fresh, appetising way to kick things off.
Perfectly ripe slices of avocado and juicy tomato sandwiched some deliciously creamy slithers of buffalo mozzarella. It’s a difficult dish to get wrong, but the whole was certainly an excellent reflection of the sum of its parts.
From the mains my dining partner had the halibut tarragon.
The sauce – a pleasant combination of cream and brandy and the classic ingredients of tarragon and white wine – worked well with the white fish, which was in itself a healthy-sized, moist and appropriately flaky steak.
There was no recommendation from our waiter that she should order an accompaniment, so she was grateful when the dish came that she had asked, of her own volition, for a portion of deep fried zuccini. The vegetables were, in themselves, devilishly moreish, but she probably would have chosen differently given the chance again.
Admittedly she couldn’t blame anyone else for that decision, but at £16 she felt the dish should have been served with a side salad or other vegetable of the chef’s choosing.
My own main course, however, lacked for nothing. It was appropriate that the pasta al forno was served in a boat-shaped dish – there was enough in it to sink a small ship. Not that that stopped me from manfully attempting to devour the whole thing.
A bucket-load of perfectly al dente tubes of rigatoni, heaps of peas, some wonderfully salty chunks of ham and a generous helping of black olives submerged in a heart-stoppingly creamy bolognese sauce, this was a dish to make a pasta lover burst into an aria. Baked with wads of mozzarella, it finally got the better of me with a good layer still lining the bottom of the bowl.
At almost half the price of my dining partner’s fish, it certainly felt like ample value for money.
Having collected our plates, the waiter thankfully left us to our own devices for a while.
During the interlude, the boss himself came out of the kitchen and sat at a table of four next to us.
They were clearly regulars and he chatted happily with them before moving on to do the rounds of some of the other tables.
We didn’t receive a personal audience. No matter, his waiting staff were perfectly attentive and the atmosphere he has fostered was enough to make us feel like we were among friends.
Having given ourselves some breathing space we asked to see the dessert menu.
According to the blurb in the main menu, Rico aims to provide food that is both “contemporary and traditional”.
The desserts – all priced at £3.95 – certainly fell into the latter category. Featuring the likes of lemon meringue, chocolate fudge cake and the Italian favourite tiramisu, the list might have been telegraphed straight from the 1980s.
In keeping with the old favourites theme, we chose cheesecake and profiteroles.
They were both entirely adequate, The profiteroles probably scored highest thanks to a yummy almost mousse-like chocolate sauce, but neither pudding demonstrated a high level of imagination or execution.
The bill, including two beers and two bottles of water, came to about £60.
You get the impression that such is the loyalty Rico’s enjoys means many regulars would take any criticism as a personal slight.
That loyalty is invaluable in an industry where repeat business is key.
But the restaurant needs to ensure that the quality of some of its food is replicated across the board if it’s to ensure that those who arrive for the first time are convinced they should come back for more.
Address: 450 Roundhay Rd, Leeds
Opening times: Noon-2.30pm daily; 5.30pm-10.30pm Mon-Thurs and Sun; 5.30pm-11.30pm Fri and Sat
Tel: 0113 2959697