THE Flying Pizza is a legendary Leeds institution.
When I first came here in the long hot summer of 1976 it had barely been open for three years, but was already, among the north Leeds glitterati, the absolute place to be seen.
Signed photographs of celebrity diners lined the walls; it was rare to visit without spotting at least one TV personality or Elland Road legend eating quietly or working the room. When Italy won the World Cup, I remember space being cleared for a giant autographed photograph of Marco Tardelli’s lung-busting goal celebration after scoring in the final.
On the broad pavement between the long picture windows and busy Street Lane, shiny Audi 80s and BMW 3.0s would jostle for space with the occasional Rolls Royce or Lamborghini, each driver hoping to plant their own particular status symbol right outside the door.
Inside, this unspoken hierarchy was subtly reinforced. The suntanned wealthy and the bejewelled well-connected would be greeted by the manager like the dearest of friends and whisked through to seats in the window, where their consumption could be at its most conspicuous. Though regulars, we usually parked our little family saloon around the corner and accepted a table wherever one might be found.
Over the years its fortunes have risen and fallen with the turbulence of the times, this rhythm of change at least partly reflecting the fortunes of the global economy and of Leeds United. And after a period in administration, in 2011 it became part of the San Carlo group, which owns restaurants in many of Britain’s major cities and overseas. But tellingly, while many in the chain have been given the company branding, here the iconic Flying Pizza name has remained.
Nowadays you can book too, unlike the busy nights when on arrival your name would be appended to a list the length of your arm; it wasn’t unusual to spend an hour waiting in the noisy, showy, bustle of the bar.
Nowadays it is a little less glitzy, and rather more egalitarian, though there are still some big cars on the pavement and the days are every bit as warm and sticky as they were in ’76. Perhaps the row of huge champagne bottles above the picture rail is a nod to Flying Pizza’s glorious prime.
On arrival in the bar, we are shown to a prime marble-topped table between the two huge olive trees in a long conservatory which the new owners have added across the front of the restaurant, and where long benches with throws and cushions maximise the seating space. Polite and attentive staff in white shirts and red ties breeze between the tables.
The San Carlo menu visits all of the significant bases, and from an impressive list of antipasti, I choose the Insalata di Mare, a colourful display of prawns, king prawns, whole baby octopus, scallops, and rubbery rings of calamari, all drizzled in oil, dashed with some subtle spices, and served with a salad of cucumber, iceberg lettuce and celery.
My partner has opted for the Avocado Diverso, where Devonshire crab meat, smoked trout and a stinging horseradish sauce provide a perfect counterpoint to the softness of the fruit. As with my starter, the presentation is every bit as good as the content, the avocado carefully sliced into a fan shape and served with a tossing of iceberg lettuce for extra texture and colour.
The change of ownership has sadly seen the restaurant’s eponymous dish, with its absolute welter of toppings, removed from the list of pizzas, so I head instead for the Quattro Stagioni whose sizeable thin crusty base, has been spread with generous handfuls of mushroom, artichoke, tomato, slices of pepper and mozzarella.
My partner chooses the Suprema di Pollo Principessa, a pan-fried chicken breast smothered in a rich sauce of white wine, cream and mushrooms. Though this is served with roasted vine tomatoes and a few spears of asparagus – as both garnish and accompanying vegetable – she also adds the extra substance of some saute potatoes, dashed with chunks of bacon, slithers of onion and sprinkled with rosemary.
The high standards are maintained by my bitter, mouth-cleansing sorbet and my partner’s wedge of moist tiramisu. And as we wait for coffees, and for a bill which comes in just the right side of £100, we are treated to a little drama which must happen around this time every night, as panels slide across the roof of the conservatory, closing out the chill as the sunshine is replaced by the glow of a modern candelabra, and by the twinkle of lights draped through the olive trees. We drain the last of an Italian house red, bursting with jammy, plummy, berry flavours, which has been the perfect accompaniment to an evening of fulsome dining absolutely in keeping with the Fying Pizza tradition.
The Flying Pizza
Address: Street Lane, Roundhay, LS8 2DQ
Telephone: 0113 266 6501
Opening hours: noon-11pm seven days