It’s a warm summer night and we’re sitting at the bar of the open kitchen of a restaurant, the azure sea shimmering in the distance. The sky is pearly as the sun dips; the doors are thrown open, chefs are shovelling pizzas into a wood stove, searing fresh fish, plating butterfly prawns and piling whipped chilli feta and roasted vine tomatoes on to crostini. Smart serving staff buzz about and a chilled Balearic soundtrack floats in the air as a peach Bellini arrives with anchovies and salsa verde and we toast our good fortune for throwing off the tightest Covid shackles, putting on our glad rags and finally travelling – to Whitby.
Some say Whitby is the most popular seaside town in the country. The crowds that descend all year round attest to that – it’s a honeypot for sure – and you’d think that there would be a wide choice of good restaurants to feed everyone. You’d be wrong unless you want fish & chips, which of course are the best – the late AA Gill chose “regular, mushy peas” at the Magpie Cafe as one of his last suppers. But otherwise? You can count them on three fingers: Mademoiselles, a lovely bistro on Skinner Street; Andrew Pern’s Star Inn the Harbour for interesting fish dishes; and now, Pizza West on West Cliff.
It’s a long, low, single-storey 1970s building that was once a privately run, super-quirky quirky science museum called the Whitby Wizard (established by Norwegian educationalist Dag Kjelldahl, it was open for ten years, closing in 2012), then several incarnations including cafe/chippy/pan-Asian restaurant.
New owner Chloe Ellis got the keys in March last year and completely gutted the building, fitting Crittall-type windows, pouring and then polishing a concrete floor and installing a magnificent central wood-burning stove; doors opened on June 3, 2021. It’s unrecognisable; contemporary, stylish and filled with light.
Maybe it’s that pearlescence that drew Hockney back to the East Coast, or the warmth in the remains of the day or simply the prospect of a dinner cooked by someone else, but I’m feeling benevolent and it’s soon apparent that everyone knows what they’re doing and we’re going to have a good time.
The menu offers a decent range of pizzas, as you’d imagine, but a few surprises too. I like the idea of fire-baked sea bass and it absolutely delivers: a box-fresh fillet with charred courgette, pepper and onion. Wood-fired lamb chops have taken on the flavour of the flames and are cooled down with tzatziki, and a beautifully fresh burrata sits on roasted nectarine with heritage tomatoes and mint. I’ve eaten a lot of this creamy cow’s milk cheese in Italy but never with fruit and I can tell you it works.
Chef Simon Trueman is bringing good-looking sourdough pizzas out of the huge stove and a Tuscan sausage, mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, sage and crispy onion comes our way along with another loaded with anchovies, capers and olives – and they’re the real deal. Ok, so we’re overlooking the North Sea, not the Bay of Naples, but you get my drift. I’m tempted by the Pizza Bianca (mozzarella, truffle, parmesan, olive oil, thyme) but can never resist beef cheek ragu and it’s clearly been bubbling away in a pot for hours; it’s sticky, dark and delicious. A courgette, lemon, basil and feta salad adds a welcome freshness. Elsewhere you’ll find feta and spinach tortellini with brown butter and sage and Dolcelatte pappardelle with black pepper.
Chloe and her husband David ran the Marine and Moon & Sixpence, both by the harbour, both well worth a visit back in the pre-pandemic era – and both victims of lockdown. After 14 years there, they were looking for a new venture, and Italy was their inspiration.
They’ve pretty much pulled it off – it’s as if it landed, fully-formed, from the sky. I talk to restaurateurs who are struggling to find and keep staff, but there seems to be no shortage here; maybe it’s a good place to work, or perhaps it’s the vibe? The one thing you can’t import is atmosphere – you can make a place look appealing with the promise of good food, but until there are bums on seats there’s no guarantee. Pizza West has it in spades.
We’ve had an elegant sufficiency, as my dad would say, but nonetheless we order affogato, lemon ricotta cannolis and caramelised peach and mascarpone and we’re glad we did.
A sad old building has been given a fabulous facelift, authentic Italian food is on the menu and – I’d argue, best of all – it’s huge fun. There are any number of reasons to come to Whitby and now there’s another one – for me, the best reason.
Pizza West, West Cliff, Whitby, North Yorkshire, YO21 3HT. Tel: 01947 604789. www.pizzawest.co.uk. Opening times: Monday and Tuesday, closed; Wednesday to Saturday, 11.30am until late; Sunday, 11.30am to 4pm.