Forty years of Italian cooking at Leeds institution Salvo’s

John and Gip Dammone at Salvo's.
John and Gip Dammone at Salvo's.
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As Salvo’s approaches 40, a new book reveals the family’s passion for Italian cooking. Helen Scott reports.

You could say it began with meatballs. A southern Italian home- cooked dish, fashioned from a few ingredients – bread, egg, seasonings and a little minced meat – served with a deeply flavoured tomato sauce. The recipe is one made with whatever is in the kitchen, cooked by instinct with no precise quantities. And it is the first food memory of John and Gip Dammone, the irrepressible double act of brothers behind Salvo’s in Leeds.

Their mother Nunzia used to make the meatballs – polpette – for family meals at home. She always left a couple on the counter which she knew the boys would pinch.

“She pretended she didn’t notice when we took them, and it became a family ritual,” said John. “I still have the memory of how they tasted today,” adds Gip, whose version of the recipe appears in the book My Family & Other Italians, which celebrates their family story and has a selection of their favourite dishes.

The polpette, like the family, have travelled from Campania to Leeds and back again, via transport cafes in Stanningley where they masqueraded as early versions of hamburgers, back to the Trattoria dello Sport in Salerno to the opening of Salvo’s where they were on the original menu, loving prepared by Nunzia and her sister Pina. Now you can find them being cooked by Gip at home and Salvo’s Salumeria, the cafe a few doors down from the restaurant.

The story of how the Dammone family came to bring their cooking to Yorkshire begins in 1954. Salvatore – Salvo is the shortened version – a young police officer from Sicily, is billeted in Salerno. He sees Nunzia, falls in love at first sight and asks her to marry him. Salvo was something of an entrepreneur, and wanted a better life for his family than the poverty-stricken back streets of Salerno. He left the police after he heard how well a friend of his was doing in the restaurant business working as a waiter in Leeds. A journey by train and boat brought him and his young bride to Leeds where he found his friend and secured work at the Parkway Hotel.

Gip was born a year later, and when Nunzia’s sister Pina and her husband Pinu arrived from Italy too the family decided to go into the catering business.

Their first venture was a transport cafe on Stanningley Road. Uncle Pinu supervised the chip output, Nunzia and her sister Pina introduced a few Italian touches, making a traditional Neapolitan tomato sauce to serve with the hamburgers which were based on the meatball recipe. An Italian expat came round with authentic ingredients from the old country in a Commer Van so the family were able to eat Italian food at home.

Other coffee bar ventures like the Blue Gardenia were set up, flourished and then sold on and Gip and now John grew up in Sixties Leeds in an extended Italian family.

Salvatore, of course, kept his contacts back in Italy and in 1972 an opportunity to run the Trattoria dello Sport in Salerno came up. Gip, who was at Thomas Danby Catering College, was sent for and introduced as the chef, and the family moved, en masse, back to Italy. John went to school and, in the evening worked in the restaurant. They served around 300 pizzas on a Saturday night. Soon there was another place I Due Tigli, which majored on wedding parties and business flourished.

When a cholera outbreak, traced back to contaminated mussels from the Bay of Naples, devastated the restaurant business, the Dammones called a halt to the Italian adventure. Once again the family headed back to Leeds. Salvo found work immediately, making pizzas for Bibi’s, but wanted his own business and after hours driving round the city found the Headingley premises, then called The Brunch Grill.

“We all helped rip the old interior out, and put in 10 identical tables of four. Gip designed the front cover of the new menu for the restaurant which was going to be called Garibaldi’s but after some debate we opted for the shortened version of Dad’s name,” recalls John. Salvo’s opened its doors in August 1976 as a casual dining restaurant which didn’t take bookings, so people queued down the street.

Uncle Pinu and Gip ran the pizza operation, with Pinu often singing so he became famous as the singing pizza chef. In the years that followed Salvo opened and closed a jazz club in Leeds city centre and another restaurant in Roundhay, before handing over the family business to his sons who doubled the size of the original restaurant, opened the Salumeria cafe a few doors down, secured an entry in the Good Food Guide and picked up the best neighbourhood Italian award on Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word.

A photo of a young Salvo and Nunzia looks down on the present operation to remind the family of where they come from. The book is dedicated to them, and the nomads of the world who have overcome hardship to make a better life for their children. Timely indeed.

“It’s still all about family,” says Gip, whose son Salvo is now one of the chefs and plans to follow in his father’s footsteps “And good authentic ingredients, treated with respect. “We’re proud to be Italian, but we’re also proud to be Yorkshire too.”

My Family & Other Italians is available from Amazon and in the restaurant, 111-115 Otley Road, Leeds.