Last summer, in Cortona, the medieval hilltop Tuscan town dripping with Fra Angelica frescos, one of my favourite moments in the day was to pop into a tiny, crowded café on the narrow, cobbled Via Nazionale, order a divine pastry and a heart-stopping espresso and enjoy it sitting in the early morning sun slanting across the Duomo.
The Renaissance altar pieces were wonderful of course, but come on, I’m a foodist not an artist. Funny how often I volunteered to do the bakery run from our holiday villa.
Oh the Italians do breakfast so well, with effortless élan. I’ve never tasted better coffee. Even Italian service station coffee is better than most of the stuff served to us here even in what are supposed to be proper coffee shops. It’s getting better and there are some notable exceptions but you simply can’t get a bad brew in Italy. In Leeds, Laynes Espresso by the station and La Bottega Milanese both do a grand job. Close your eyes and you’re in a corner café in Calabria.
VINeataly comes pretty close to the real deal.
It seems not many people are drawn down the Dark Arches to the wilderness that is Granary Wharf. Certainly not on a bitingly-sharp midweek lunchtime, when tumbleweed is blowing across the square and most of the 10 (10?!) eateries are empty but for listless waiters polishing glasses. I’ve been down here many times in all seasons and I’ve never seen it thriving. How does anyone make a living? How does anyone afford the rent?
Anyway, tucked into one corner is VINeataly. Thankfully it’s warm. And busy. The moment I push open the swing doors, clock the bright red vintage Vespa in the window and sides of Prosciutto, Coppa and Pancetta hanging over the shiny counter bursting with gorgeous looking goodies I breathe a cautious sigh of relief. Then the raucous Italian pop music kicks in and I know I’ve landed. Anywhere else and I’d turn on my heel and walk away. There are few places I’d consider eating in that plays pappy pop at this level. But it’s just how it is in Italy. Usually with a TV the size of a house side showing football, complete with local lads shouting and cussing. But generally the food in these slightly scruffy suburban places is fabulous. Il Paradiso del Cibo in York is like this, with its formica tables. And arguably the most exuberant and authentic Italian food in the city.
VINeataly is far from scruffy; in fact it gleams. There’s a whiff of the post-industrial, with much glass, steel and tile. On the ground floor, a narrow-ish space for eating and a couple of high tables and stools well placed by the Vespa to take a cracking espresso from the gleaming Gaggia and a biscotti. If there were any people to watch in the square this is the spot to do it.
Up the stairs by the shelves of tempting tracklements for sale is the first floor with its grand vaulted brick ceiling and view of the car park. The obligatory huge telly is present but not on. The place shakes as a train rumbles by somewhere near.
Distressed metal chairs and chunky tables add to the industrial vibe but there are a couple of padded banquettes and a lounging area at one end with low leather sofas and red suede cubes. A wall constructed of wine cases gives a hint to the “enoteca” aspect of the place: enoteca gastronomica is the Italian equivalent of “wine by the glass”, but in this case served from a unique dispenser resulting in a perfect glass each time.
Chef Massimo Bresciani is from Florence so the menu inevitably reflects his Tuscan heritage, though it’s broadly Italian, with nods to Piedmont and Sicily.
A helpful note attached to the menu makes a couple of wine suggestions; with involtino of speck and mozzarella is a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (“from a small producer, a soft, warm example with pleasant aromas of red fruits”) and mains-wise, beef sirloin “Florence style” is paired with a Valpolicella Classico (“bright, warm ruby red. On the nose it is broad with inklings of almonds and wild berries”). I love the sound of this but I’ve given my driver the day off.
Paninis baked on the premises (available to take out too) include classico with dry cured Tuscan ham and mozzarella pears, nobile with carpacccio, truffle oil, rocket and Parmesan and rustico, full of suckling pig. You won’t get these at Tesco Express. Slices of home made focaccia and pizza slice on display are very tempting. The last time I had one of those was off a stall in the street in Siena but today we’re diving into Stuzzichini (“strictly Italian nibbles”).
Classic antipasto arrives on a couple of boards and include speck (juniper-infused, dry cured ham), fat, succulent olives, sweet mozzarella pearls, crostini with Sicilian anchovies and capers and bruschetta freighted with smoky grilled aubergines and tomatoes. Polpettes (pork and beef croquettes in tomato sauce) are identical to those demolished in Il Baccanale in Lucca, i.e. smooth and unctuous with a sharply sweet, deep tomato concasse. Albeit without the 80 degree temperature and the family dogs roaming round your feet looking for scraps. And footie on the telly.
Our waiter, Massimo, speaks halting English as do the rest of the staff (I completely approve of this, it further confirms that this is a proper Italian eaterie) and he’s across every single item on the menu and a lot more besides. He shakes his head and clucks when we tell him we’re not having a glass of wine, and urges us to return (with driver) and perhaps try one of their extraordinary cocktails. They actually make the fruit shots that go into the mix; how extraordinary is that? While it’s nicely busy at lunchtime, apparently Friday nights really kick off, and remind him – he says rather wistfully – of his home in Barolo.
One spoonful of ribollita, a hearty Tuscan soup traditionally made with bread, vegetables and cannellini beans, and I’m transported. Burrata mozzarella is a dish too far (portions here are substantial) but we can’t resist. It comes with the aforementioned focaccia and an unruly pile of sweet wafer thin ham, and is the last word in creamy. I can’t resist reporting their description of Italian fries: “just like French but made with love”. Don’t shoot the messenger.
The great thing about this place is eat as much or as little as you like; a macchiato and a Cantucci biscuit or antipasto followed by Aubergines Parmigiana or their great-looking handmade cannelloni. For me this is a place to graze, take your time and the laptop and put in an hour or two “working”. Choose a couple of Stuzzichini, take a break. Compose that important email. Have a glass of Prosecco and a think, by which time you’ll be ready for a plate of lasagna.
But finish with one of those excellent coffees. You can think yourself into Florence or Pisa. At least until you turn your collar up to face the grim concrete West Yorkshire reality outside.
VINeataly, Arch Z, Granary Wharf, Dark Neville Street, Leeds LS1 4BR. 0113 243 0090, www.divaitaliana.co.uk. Open Monday to Friday, 10am to 12am. Saturday and Sunday, 12pm to 12am.