With bells, whistles and then some more bells, the Flying Pizza has re-entered the stratosphere and is back firmly on terra firma. It’s been a while coming.
Those who were regulars in its heyday mourned the passing of an institution; after decades of consistent success, this Leeds landmark nosedived and went into administration. It seemed inconceivable; the FP was the favourite haunt of the well-heeled (witness the legendary array of private plates on the pavement) – who would have imagined it could come to an end? It was always a place to see and be seen; local slebs, Emmerdale Farm actors (yes, back in the day, it was a Farm) and high-maintenance Leeds 17 lunching ladies were all on show.
Years ago I worked on Jimmy’s, the television series based at the Teaching Hospital, and it was a hoot to spot surgeons who earlier we’d filmed fitting gastric bands and replacing hips (the bloodiest op there is) tucking in to plates of pasta.
It’s still a showcase. Father and son team Carlo and Marcello Distefano (who lived down the road for years) came to the rescue and chucked a million quid at it, and very smart it looks too.
Gone are the artex walls and the fading photos, and in their place is half a hillside of Carerra marble, banks of mirrors (so if you’re seated with your back to the room, you can keep an eye on proceedings) and white linen table cloths.
There’s rather a fierce welcome policy. I felt vaguely pounced on at the bar, the rictus smiles of two handsome boys serving drinks belied their “Good Evening Ladeeez!” trill as we came in, the maitre’d similarly “on purpose”.
It made me a bit nostalgic for the old days, when the waiters were so sat-back 20 minutes could go by before anyone took any notice of you.
Unemployment figures must be well down in Roundhay, everyone’s working here.
Before my backside hit the banquette, three attendants swooped in with menus, drinks orders and “can I take your coat?” There was a sweet moment when I spotted one of the old guard wandering round looking glum.
“Didn’t he work here a million years ago?” I ask my Jimmy’s ex-co-worker/fellow diner. Ah, the good old days.
They’ve got something right because it’s heaving at 7.30 on a stormy, wet Wednesday. The same crowd is in and they don’t look any older or fatter. Why do I? It’s a mystery. The menu’s been given a make-over, as you’d expect, but it sports the usual fish/meat/pasta/pizza combo.
Baccala mantecato all Veneziana (cod pate with grilled Italian bread) was clumsy, an unappealing colour but most alarmingly so under-seasoned as to be almost tasteless, apart from a rather unpleasant greasy fishiness which resulted in most of it being abandoned.
I fared much better with Monkfish roulade (wrapped in parma ham, served with eggplant, marinated in olive oil and Sicilian lemons). Surprisingly sophisticated, the flavours were deep yet delicate, the fish bob on, and what’s more, it was served at the right temperature. The Calzone had a great, hot-air balloon of crust, with the tomato innards ripe and fresh. But again, it was criminally under-seasoned, so the chicken was all texture and no taste. A rocket and parmesan salad was well-dressed.
Lobster and crab ravioli with clams, butter sauce, chilli and garlic was a winner; subtle, smooth and creamy, with just the right amount of bite, and nicely spiked with the chilli. By now I’m wondering if there are two kitchens here. The inconsistency is worrying.
But not as worrying as my memory (or lack) of the puddings. They were entirely forgettable. Let’s leave it there, shall we?
Did we ever come here for the food? No. We came for the buzz, the people-watching and to be treated with contempt by the waiters. That has been supplanted with over-attention, the first two remain true.
But some things never change; the private plates are back on the forecourt and impossibly well-groomed women are still pushing pasta round their plates, pretending to eat. Ah. Mystery solved.
Meal for two (three courses), plus a bottle of wine at £20.50 (one of the cheapest), came to £87.29
San Carlo’s Flying Pizza, 60 Street Lane, Leeds LS8 2DQ Tel: 0113 266 6501 www.sancarlo.co.uk/flyingpizza