After a number of failed attempts to book in for two on a Friday or Saturday night, we were fitted in on a cold wet Tuesday and even then it filled up fast until we were all packed in like anchovies. Walk-ups can occasionally get lucky. “Out by 8.30pm, okay?” the waiter says to one young couple who were hoping to slip in for the early-bird pizza/pasta and a glass of wine, £6.95 all in. They’re past the deadline but, yes, they’re told, go for it.
We’re in York’s cosmopolitan foodie quarter of Fossgate/Walmgate where Paolo Silesu set up alongside a United Nations of Thai, Indian, Argentinian, Polish and even British restaurants. His homely little trattoria has been gently upgraded since I was here last. There are fewer football pennants and maps of Sardinia; the walls are currently hung with boxes of panettone and Venetian masks and there’s a huge portrait of Paulo in chef’s whites, every bit the central casting Italian chef. But the spirit of the place is undoubtedly intact. The old TV in the corner playing non-stop Italian football is now a mighty 50 inch flat-screen HD TV playing non-stop Italian football. You get the picture.
The crowd here has always been led by a mix of students and their teachers and there’s something for every pocket. Pasta comes in whopping, steaming bowlfuls. Blistered pizza is the real thing; both start at £6.25. But it’s the blackboard with some 30 chalked up specials, plenty with Sardinian origins, that catches our eye. Sardines con pesto rosso; grilled pecorino with honey; baked aubergines; burrata Pugliese, a creamy mozzarella; fresh pasta with lobster, garlic and cream; sea bream with mussels, calamari and garlic; lamb marinated in Chianti and char-grilled. On it goes across three large blackboards.
We go for the Pecorino and the sardines for starters. The sardines come smothered in caramelised onions, tomato and garlic and somehow still assert themselves amongst everything else on the plate. It’s a rich, full-on, confident dish. Our other starter is no less feisty: baked Pecorino and honey arrives as an awkward puddle of melted cheese, doused in Italian honey with a rocket salad and pickled onions. Pickled onions are what I leave behind in a pub ploughman’s but here their vinegariness cuts through the rich cheese and sweet honey.
Penalty! The TV sound is turned down but suddenly all the waiters are in freeze-frame. Napoli score against Juventus. There’s a collective shrug – Sardinians support Juventus, apparently – and normal service resumes.
Sea bream comes simply grilled with crisp skin and good roast spuds. Nothing fancy, just fine fresh fish expertly done. The promised rosemary in the mix is not discernible but it’s a minor loss when the fish is this good. Our other main is malloreddus – short, hand-rolled Sardinian pasta, shaped like torpedoes, and served with Italian sausage, cream and saffron. It could sum up the Paolo school of cooking: dripping in calories and cream, with plenty of smoky sausage, a thoroughly rich, over the top, in-your-face bowl of pasta. Short on finesse perhaps, but sometimes, and especially on a cold winter night, a plate of carbs like this is bang-on.
Juventus go 2-0 down and pull one back. ‘Bella! Bellissima!’ cry the waiters. To finish we share a little disc of ricotta cake studded with pear. Soft, creamy – yes, more cream – but not too sweet and happily demolished, though they could spare us the squirty lines of pink and yellow syrup which taste like something from the medicine cabinet.
We’ve drunk a plonky bottle of house Merlot (£11) and ordered a side bowl of mixed olives. They’ve brought us bread and oil. Our bill comes to £57. It’s cheap, though not exceptionally so. The food’s very good, if not quite the paradise of its name. So what’s the secret of its runaway success?
It’s my theory that we think we’re on holiday. Paulo has re-created just the sort of unpretentious cafe we Brits love when we’re abroad. The little place we hope to find by accident just off the tourist beat in Rome, Naples or Cagliari and go home and rave about its character and prices. Paulo’s recreates the scene, where one of our waiters spoke no English but it didn’t matter; where a table of Italian guys stretch out a beer, help with service when the need arises and respond like timeless Italian men when a trio of pretty girls pack up and leave; where Paolo is Mr Affable as he takes a break for TV football time.
It’s a little bit crazy, but above all it has a generous smile on its face. That’s how to become the most popular restaurant in the fifth best food city in Europe.
Il Paradiso del Cibo, 40 Walmgate, York YO0 1TJ Tel. 01904 61144. Email: [email protected] Website: www.ilparadisodelcibo.com
Open Mon-Sat 12.30-3pm & 6-10pm. Open Sun from mid-March.
Price: Dinner for two, three courses including coffee, a bottle house wine and service, around £70.