It’s been a balmy summer so far and Amanda Wragg channels her inner Italian at Buon Apps and enjoys the Mediterranean vibe.
Thirty years ago, fledgling restaurant reviewer Jay Rayner published his first review, of Manfred’s Italian in Leeds. He literally published it – he was the editor of a student newspaper, and his own worst critic. It included some rapier-sharp observations – a chicken breast stuffed with spinach was “thrillingly different”; an Italian trifle had “to be seen to be believed”. It was, I concluded, very hard to fault Manfred’s, “there being few to compare with it in Leeds”. I can’t quite imagine that anybody else would have considered this to be velvet prose worth sacrificing a tree for. I’ve no idea what happened to Rayner.
In 2003 Manfred joined Alessandro and Elena Sofia Tocca when they opened the original Buon Apps in a quiet corner of Otley’s Wharfebank Business Centre (more handsome than it sounds) though now he must be pushing 80, so who knows if he’s made the move to a new location on a posh still-under-construction housing development by the river.
We drive through sleepy Otley on a hot summer evening, where folk must be taking sanctuary indoors, as the streets are completely bare. Either that or the three- minute warning has sounded and we’re gossiping too loudly to hear it. As we near the place, the babble of chatter and clink of glasses gets louder, and Hartley House hoves into view. Ah, this is where everyone is. The joint is jumping.
Alessandro and Sofia saw the potential in the monumental but run-down former paper mill a number of years ago, and despite its shocking state spent strong money on it, and it’s paid off; they’ve made a grand job of it. Inside, it’s vast, but with cosy corners, and all stone walls and lintels, oak floors and subtle lighting. But we’re sitting outside on such a night, in the lovely trellis-covered, paved patio and with warbling Italian tenors and strings of lights reflected in the mirror-still River Wharfe, it feels more Otranto than Otley.
It’s a crowd-pleasing menu bristling with Italian classics – melanzane parmigiana, calamari fritti, lasagne, tagliatelle alla bolognese and stone-baked pizza. It’s pleasing to see burrata caprese and it delivers, the soft, fresh buffalo cheese spilling over sweet torpedino tomatoes and avocado; simple but effective. Beef carpaccio is accurately marinated, with notes of rosemary, thyme and lemon coming through. We watch a fine looking pizza arrive at the next table, but eschew it for fish and a bowl of seafood pasta.
Nasello asparagi e limone delivers a perfectly cooked hunk of hake on a pile of asparagus and heritage carrots, shot through with a lemony, buttery, herby sauce, nicely mopped up with light-as-a-feather zucchini fritti. There’s big-boned generosity on show in the calamarata marinara – Scottish mussels, fat prawns and calamari, all swimming in a massive sauce as deep as the ocean.
Starters are about a tenner and mains around £20, with a generous plate of pasta circling £15 and pizzas start at £9.95. There’s a fixed price menu (two courses for £18.95 or three for £22.95) and a kids’ menu. The mostly Italian wine list isn’t grasping – a fabulously flinty Pecorino delle Terre di Chieti comes at £25.
Young, local waiting staff dart about, friendly and unflustered under Alessandro’s watchful eye. Nothing escapes him. He’s been in the business long enough to know when a room’s working, and his radar is finely-tuned. Oh, and he could bottle and sell his fabulous Italian/Yorkshire mash-up accent.
As the sun drops, Wharfedale’s young smart set fetch up and order Prosecco cocktails, Negronis and aperitivos: small plates of battered salted cod, breaded stuffed green olives and panelle (chickpea fritters). They colonise the long, tall table overlooking the river and the air is rich with their laughter and chatter.
There’s no need for dessert but since when did that stop us. A thick, sweet, boozy brulee shot through with cinnamon and orange zest disappears in seconds when two people go at it. There’s tiramisu of course, and affogato and summer fruit and lime sorbet – and – for those with deeper boots than me, a Nutella pizza.
There’s nothing on the menu here that’s startlingly innovative, and I mean that in a good way. Not a jus, foam or a smear of puree in sight, nothing deconstructed, just hearty, traditional, Italian food cooked properly, with more time spent on the taste of the plates than the look of them.
On a balmy summer evening, swallows swoop over the water, Dean Martin launches into Amore and we’re in danger of going native.
* Buon Apps River Lounge & Italian Restaurant, Hartley House, 50 Mill Way, Otley LS21 1FE; 01943 468458; www.buonappsotley.co.uk. Open Tuesday to Thursday, 12-9.30pm, Friday/Saturday, 12-10pm, Sunday, 12-9pm.