Any food lover who has lived in Leeds or spent any time there will surely, at some time, have eaten at Salvo’s, the Headingley restaurant that has been dispensing top-quality pizza and pasta for some 42 years.
Those who know the story of Salvo’s can skip this paragraph. For the rest, it’s how Salvatore and Nunzia Dammone arrived from Sicily in 1955 and ran a series of Italian-style cafes in Leeds before returning to Italy with sons Gip and John. Gip, fresh from Thomas Danby Catering College, worked alongside his Uncle Pinu honing his pizza-making skills while younger brother John was packed off to school.
In time the family moved back to Leeds to open a tiny trattoria in leafy Headingley where they still are today. For umpteen years Salvo’s stubbornly refused to take bookings and we stoically shivered and queued round the block for the sake of steaming bowls of pasta and pizzas that came with a free operatic aria, belted out by a sweating Uncle Pinu as he slid another batch of Margheritas into the oven.
Gip and John run the business today with a much enlarged restaurant and a booking system. Never ones to stand still though, in 2011 the brothers took over a shop a few doors along and created Salvo’s Salumeria, an upmarket deli stacked with gorgeous Italian produce as well as a daytime cafe.
But a shop and cafe were never going to be enough for these two driven guys who soon began running multi-course regional dinners and family suppers on Friday and Saturday nights. Now they’ve torn up the menus and reinvented themselves once more with “Alter Ego: Creative Menus with a Modern Twist” with the strapline “the future of tradition”. “I don’t know what it means, but I love a slogan,” says Gip with a hearty laugh.
If he doesn’t know what it means, we are about to find out. Five of us are here for one of the first Alter Egos (there is a separate and good looking vegetarian menu and with notice they will cater for coeliacs and special diets) on an unseasonal spring evening, the snow drifting worryingly outside. We contemplate sleeping here.
A delightful and intense crab soup with mista corta – broken up bits of pasta – was inspired by a staff visit to a three-star Michelin restaurant in Naples. It’s nicely balanced with just a hint of chilli and spring onions among the soothing crabby bisque. Beautiful.
Thereafter the voting for dish of the night is split. My favourite is pork fillet with roast and pureed cauliflower, a deep umami gravy and crisp kale leaves. Others rave over the plate of small bites: cured salmon with a spot of Amalfi lemon (more lemon, please chef), salami with pickled courgette and pureed onion and shallot.
Lamb belly is the cheap, fatty cut I remember from school dinners and a brave dish to put out there. Maybe it will replace the ubiquitous pork belly because it is very satisfying, slow cooked to tenderness then given a crisped up rind, matched with a battered, deep-fried anchovy with some rather tame basil butter.
Our least favourite dish, and that’s not to say it was poor, was the baccala ravioli. It’s my hunch that it was down to our native antipathy towards salt cod. We Brits generally take our cod battered and fried. The rich pomadoro tomato sauce more than compensates, however. Fabulously concentrated, deep and flavourful, it had us finger-licking the plate.
Michael, our engaging waiter, then brought a surprise dessert. He reeled off what sounded like fruits of the forest sorbet with cinnamon and sugar toasted Sardinian pasta. Yes, he said, he had sampled every dish. “All the staff have, so that we can explain them. And the wines.” We were recommended a crisp, white Verdicchio and a silky smooth Refosca, both good. “I love my job. I’m paid to eat and drink,” he said. That makes two of us.
The final course is a whipped cream and rhubarb concoction involving white chocolate, poached rhubarb and “black crack”, a very dark chocolate tuile and for one of our party, the sublime dish of the lot.
All this of course will have changed by the time you eat here but it tells you that Gip clearly does know that “the future of tradition” means playing around with traditional ingredients and giving them a modern twist. So, six exciting and for the most part, nicely judged courses, well paced and served by lovely staff who know their stuff.
Sitting within range of the chill counter and shelves of pasta and jars of truffle oil was tempting in the extreme and one of our party was sent home with a gift of fat green olives in a jar. And another considerate touch: this must be the only restaurant in the face of all the recent publicity about damaging no-shows that would ring me up about our table of five to say “Don’t come, the weather’s too bad.” Luckily for us, it was too late, we’d already set off, through a minor snowstorm. I’m so glad we did. Forza Salvo.
Address: 107 Otley Road, Leeds LS6 3PX
Opening times: cafe: Monday to Sunday, 9.30am-4.30pm; Alter Ego, Friday & Saturday, 7-10.30pm
Telephone: 0113 275 8877
Price for review meal: Three-course dinner for two inc. bottle of wine and service, £110.