THAT’S enough for one night,” says Pasqualina, flipping the sign on the door to “Closed” and starting to collect in the menus from the scattered tables beneath sky-blue parasols across the broad pavement outside.
It’s barely 9pm, but she and the eponymous Marinella have been at work since breakfast time, and they still have a dozen customers to attend to in their one-room restaurant tucked away amid a little parade of shops down a residential street in Alwoodley. Business is clearly very good, but any further arrivals could seriously jeopardise their chance of being home by midnight.
The sisters established the little restaurant about three years ago, quickly developing a healthy clutch of regular customers in this bastion of semi-detached, middle class suburbia, which hasn’t always been too well served by restaurants in the past. Their family has been a big noise on the local dining scene for many years, having previously held the popular Dolce Vita on Vicar Lane, which closed a decade or so ago. “It was our mum’s restaurant,” says Pasqualina. “There were seven of us and we all worked there at some point. When she died a little bit of the sparkle went away.”
Their new venture k
brings all of that sparkle right back to life, pairing Marinella’s remarkable skills as a chef with Pasqualina’s natural abilities as a gregarious and friendly host. Though both were raised in Leeds, the family is originally from Sicily, and the restaurant celebrates the very best of Sicilian and southern Italian cuisine. “It’s our home cooking,” she says. “Typically Sicilian food tends to use lots of oregano and basil, whereas in Naples it’s more about chilli and spices.”
Even so, a first glance at the menu can rather leave you non-plussed, as it lists only the items which are available in their all-day Italian breakfast. Instead, the day’s main dining options of fish, meat and pasta dishes are chalked up on a large blackboard – and Pasqualina painstakingly talks diners through all of these many choices, explaining how each is prepared and served. The choices change regularly and even if something isn’t on the board, her sister can often provide it to order, including pizzas.
So although it’s not actually listed, she readily agrees to create a big plate of mixed antipasti (£15) for my partner and I to share as a starter. Its centrepiece is a broad slice of lightly-battered aubergine, and this is surrounded by a colourful array of salami and mortadella, peppers, tomatoes, onions and spinach, cheeses of various styles and strengths, all liberally tossed with lettuce and green, brown and black olives.
This blend of tastes and textures proves a perfect start to our evening’s dining, and goes beautifully with a softly-spoken bottle of Montepulciano, which we have picked up at an off-licence on route. Marinella’s isn’t licensed, but they’re quite happy to let customers supply their own booze.
The room is simply decorated in white, given a splash of colour by a display of maps and aprons on an Italian theme and arrangements of fruit juices and Italian biscuits and pastas. Strings of blue and white fairy lights add their own twinkling effect; a long window seat is lined with colourful comfy cushions.
For my main course I’ve been attracted by Pasqualino’s description of the Tagliatelli Adrano (£7.25), which is a simple mound of the long pasta strips, studded with chunks of asparagus and slithers of onion and tossed in oil and herbs. My partner’s Cotoletta Di Pollo (£8.95) is a huge slab of chicken escalope, lightly breaded and served with a mixed salad. Both prove to be great choices: the portion sizes are generous and the prices represent great value for money. Each is freshly made too – from the dining room you can see the hard-working Marinella working her magic in the kitchen.
Thankfully she doesn’t have to make her own desserts. Sweets and pastries are something of a traditional speciality of Sicilian cuisine, and the restaurant imports them directly, either from the island itself or from southern Italy. And rather than describing them, this time Pasqualino brings each of them to the table for us to choose, rather like a walking sweet trolley, laden down with colourful, mouthwatering treats.
I’m drawn immediately to the vibrant crimsons of the Torta Frutti Di Bosco (£3.95), which is a rich pastry and cheese base topped with a generous layer of tangy dark fruits. My partner goes for the cannoli (£3.95), a thin pastry wrap stuffed with cream cheese and slices of bitter orange. The Godfather’s famous line: “Leave the gun, take the cannoli,” celebrates this confection’s place in Sicilian-American culture. We could barely complete this authentic Italian dining experience without coffees; my partner slurps at a sizeable creamy latte (£2.45) while I sip cautiously at a high-octane, rich black espresso (£2.45). This, along with a bill for a phenomenal (£44) rounds off our evening in great style.
Address: The Avenue, Leeds, LS17 7PA
Food serving times: Open from breakfast time onwards but booking essential after 8pm
Telephone: 0113 261 1450