Chef patron Andrea D’Ercole tells Neil Hudson why Italian food is not just about pizza and pasta and why he’s excited about the delivery of a 250-day aged steak...
You won’t find any Peroni or Modello at Ipsum Vinoteca on Duke Street. Nor will you find any humdrum wines which populate the lists of more well known restaurants. That’s because owner/chef Andrea D’Ercole has made it his mission in life to seek out the rare and the exceptional.
In some ways, his wine bar-turned-restaurant is something of an oddity. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but given it’s situated at the bottom end of town and relies on a well-informed, discerning clientele who value the kind of bespoke service he offers, it’s a testament to his dedication that it’s still pulling in the customers.
Ipsum Vinoteca opened its doors at the end of 2014 in Munro House, opposite the bus station. Back then that was a veritable wasteland as far as opening a restaurant goes, with practically zero passing trade. But somehow he has made it work and when I meet him to discuss his unique approach to wining and dining, I get the impression he’s more than aware of this.
“We get no passing trade here, we rely on customers who know quality and return time after time. When I started this, it was meant to be as a wine bar, because of my knowledge of wine but when they came, they wanted something to eat, so I began a small menu.”
When he says small, that’s an understatement. The menu, which changes daily, typically contains only two or three dishes for each course but therein lies the beauty of what he has achieved, because as far as he knows, he is the only chef in Leeds - and possibly beyond - who is doing this.
“I set the menu each day,” he explains while sipping what he describes as a ‘big coffee’ but which is in fact, contained in one of those tiny espresso cups. “I go out and source the ingredients and from that I make the menu.”
So, he’s inventive but there’s more to it than that. Andrea goes to great lengths to source the kind of rare delicacies even the most discerning of diners could only dream about. As we chat, he points out the menu board he currently has on show, which lists a 150-day aged sirloin steak. But that’s nothing. In April, he will be serving up one which has been aged for a staggering 250 days. He’s proud of it too and even dashes into the kitchen to bring back two vacuum packed specimens, one aged 28 days and the 150-day steak.
“The 150-day cured steak looks smaller,” he says. “When you cook it, you cook it rare because that’s all it needs, the meat is almost like ham and the fat around the outside it so beautiful and comes up crispy.”
Some diners might baulk at the price of such a morsel - £29 - but considering the great efforts which have gone into making it, which involve carefully curing it in pink Himalayan rock salt, it’s not something you can just buy off the shelf.
Andrea has always had cooking in his blood. He was raised in Gissi, in the Abruzzo region of Italy by parents Nicola and Anna, his mother, whom he credits for his passion for cooking. The eldest of three brothers, he was also heavily influenced by his grandparents, Ida and Ettorre Dugo, who owned a vineyard and from whom he clearly stole a passion for fine wines.
While some might judge the interior of Ipsum Vinoteca as sparse - it is mostly done out in plain wood, with huge pigeon holes filled to the brim with what must be hundreds of bottles of wine (all of them chosen by him for their unique character) - others will see the simplicity as indicative of a man who lives and breaths for the simple pleasures in life.
When we get around to talking about wine, he is stoic and enthusiastic in equal measure.
“Wine has always been on the back burner in way,” he bemoans. “It’s always been there but it’s not appreciated as it should be. When it comes to drink, there always seems to be a trend which is stealing the limelight. So, for example, not very long ago it was craft beer, now it’s gin and the next it will be whiskey and after that vermouth. Wine is forgotten about but for people who love the lifestyle and appreciate what a good bottle of wine means, this is what I aim to give them. A good bottle of wine from me is not something you throw down your neck. If you want that, go somewhere else, it will be much cheaper. When you open a bottle of wine here, it may take an hour to drink it, to sip it and appreciate it. It’s not about the wine as much as what comes with it, which is good food and good company.”
Some of the wines to be found here are magnificent - from Amarone to Barolo, Taurasi to Supertuscany and Franciacorta to Prosecco, passing for dessert wines.
Everything, except the bread, is made in house. The bar menu is somewhat more extensive, running to panninis, calamari, wild venison burgers, with vegetarian and vegan options to boot.
Back to that diminutive yet elegant menu, devised each day. “I get my produce only from the best places. The bread, for example, comes from a bakery in London which ferments their dough for 48 hours, which means even gluten intolerant people can eat it. Some of the cheeses and charcuterie comes from Italy, the beef from a farm in Harrogate, pork comes from the Lake District, the venison from Scotland.”
However, he still sources some fish and vegetables from Leeds Market and he’s so passionate that even in his spare time, he experiments with different dishes.
“If I marinade something, I will do it three ways. Then I will taste it, to see what this ingredient does to the meat, how it affects it. Or how long to leave the marinade on. When you serve it to the customer, everything has to be perfect. In my view, there are two kinds of people in the kitchen: the cooks and the chefs. A cook will follow a recipe and prepare some food for you, but a chef will know everything about that food and what all the different ingredients do and how they alter the taste, the texture... if you add a little more of this or take away that. It’s my passion, so that’s why I do it. For me, it’s like playing with toys almost. I enjoy it. So, that’s why I experiment, so that when I serve to the customer, it’s perfect.”
Aside from having over 300 wines and 50-odd Italian craft beers in stock, Andrea is constantly on the lookout for food which will surprise and delight his customers.
“I go back to Italy regularly to source ingredients and cheeses and so on and to look at the wines from small producers. These things you cannot get anyway else.”
Andrea, who turned 43 in January, first came to Leeds for a day out: “I was with a woman at the time but we are no longer together but when we came here, the sun was shining and we fell in love with the place.
“I’m putting 120 per cent into it and all I want is for people to enjoy it as I do.”
His approach to food and his clear knowledge of wine have created something unique in Leeds, if not the wider region and while his location might be somewhat out on a limb, considering the amount of development to the Eastgate Quarter, he may well end up snagging some of that passing custom sooner than he thinks.
*If you want to sample the 250-day cured sirloin, then he says it will be on the menu toward the back end of April.
Andrea came to England to study for an MBA in business; he worked for a Blue Chip company before setting up a website italyabroad but his passion was to open his own wine bar, his mission to let people know there’s more to Italian food than pasta and pizza
Ipsum is Latin for ‘itself’, while ‘Vinoteca’ means ‘library of wines’
Items on his menu come with suggestions for wines which work well with that particular dish
Call: 0113 2425197
Opening seven days for lunch and dinner: Mon-Thursday 11am-11pm, Fri/Sat 11am-noon, Sunday noon-9pm