It took me several weeks to book a table at Salvo’s in Headingley.
The first time I attempted to secure a spot there was before Christmas. I foolishly telephoned them just a few hours before my intended trip, only to be told, ever so politely, that they were fully booked.
The second time I tried, I phoned the day before but even then there were only a few slots left, the earliest being at 8.30pm, which was no good for me because I had smaller versions of myself (otherwise known as children) to take care of. Ergo, I waited and then, finally, I managed it. This time I booked online, which is not something I make a habit of but it was simple enough - the only thing which slightly confused me was when I made the booking, I was asked whether I wanted to join a special ‘event’ which was running at the same time, the explanation of which will come later.
Salvo’s is something of an institution, not just in Headingley but Leeds as a whole. Named after its founder Salvatore Damone, it marked its 40th year last year. Like a fine wine or a classic movie or anything with a bit of history, their backstory is deeply satisfying. Born in Sicily, Salvatore first came to Leeds in 1954 and with his wife Nunzia opened the Unicorn, a transport café on Stanningley Road, followed by the Blue Gardenia on Boar Lane. But when Gip and John were born, they returned to Salerno to run a trattoria, where Gip learned his craft. In 1970, a cholera scare in Europe devastated the restaurant business, and they decided to try their luck in Leeds again. All of this (and more) is told in a kind of biography-cum-recipe book which you can buy from the restaurant (£17 if you’re not eating, a tenner if you are).
There are tales told of old of people queuing around the block to get into Salvo’s and while the queues have migrated ‘online’ (vis a vis: my own experience), it’s clear from the moment you walk in that this restaurant and its staff are still at the top of their game.
The greeting is warm and friendly. We’re 15 minutes early but no matter, within moments we’re shown to a table, our host genial and polite to a fault.
We begin our dining journey with something simple: bread, oil and balsamic and a delightful fritto misto (£8), lightly fried in nicely seasoned batter, a real trawlerman’s catch of whitebait, calamari and octopus, with fried courgettes into the mix.
By the time we’d finished our starters, the restaurant was beginning to fill up, the hum of conversation ebbing higher and higher. Throughout, however, service remained strong and alongside the various waiters shuffling between tables is John (co-owner with brother Gip, the sons of Salvatore and Nunzia), keeping an eye on the diners and his staff and occasionally (effortlessly) engaging diners in conversation, although nothing which ever feels intrusive or distracting.
Mains come in the form of a pizza Francescana (£11) and Naselllo, which is roast hake, served on dauphinoise potatoes, wilted spinach and charred spring onions, which offer a deeply satisfying sharp and sweet backdrop to the fish, which is perfectly cooked with a nice crispiness to the skin, while the dauphinoise ties the whole dish together.
Sides included the sumptuous truffle chips, scattered with shaved parmesan - a salty, soothing treat - and crushed new potatoes with caramelised onions, a marriage to be celebrated and, moreover, an idea to take home.
Deserts came in the form of tiramisu(£6.50) and chocolate ice cream, which is wonderfully creamy and rich. Together with drinks, the final bill comes to £77.35, which is eminently reasonable given that it’s not difficult to spend close to £100 on a meal for two these days.
By the time we left, the place was heaving, every seat taken, staff whizzing hither and thither but John still finds time to chat on the way out, explaining to me about the ‘event’ which was flagged up from our online booking. Attentive readers will know Salvo’s has expanded over the years, first taking over an upstairs flat, which is where the loos now live, freeing up more dining space, then taking over the shop next door, effectively doubling the size of their dining area and, most recently (2011), buying the shop next door but one, which is now their salumeria, which offers fine dining tasting menus for those discerning foodies (and those who don’t have children in tow). We reviewed that separately in May - suffice to say, it more than makes the grade. On final reflection, it’s not hard to see why Salvo’s is still at the top of its tree.
The overall experience is satisfying and memorable. If the shop between the main restaurant and the salumeria ever comes on the market, what’s betting they don’t snap that up too, as demand is surely there.
Address: 115 & 107 Otley Road, Headingley, Leeds, LS6 3PX
Opening times: Mon-Thurs noon-2pm, 5.30pm-9pm, Friday noon-2pm, 5.30pm-10pm, Sat noon-10pm, Sun noon-9pm
Contact number: 0113 275 5017