Those behind Fantinos may lack experience, but they know how to make good pizzas says Elaine Lemm.
Opening a new restaurant is a daunting prospect for even the most experienced restaurateur. It takes guts and a heap of courage. There are many though who even without qualification or experience will relentlessly plough ahead and open one anyway in pursuit of their dream. Ultimately, some will succeed, and some will fail. Take the recently opened Fantinos, in Sowerby.
If you know Sowerby, it is the North Yorkshire village that seamlessly merges with neighbouring Thirsk, yet retains its identity. On the long, broad, main street, there are charming timber-framed houses, grand Georgian piles and a smattering of cottages. There’s a couple of pubs and now Fantinos, in what was once the much-acclaimed Oswalds Restaurant with Rooms. As the restaurant is within shouting distance of Thirsk racecourse, I was not overly surprised to discover that Fantino means jockey in Italian.
Despite the new owner Sean having neither experience in the restaurant business nor any chef training, he admits to always wanting to own an Italian restaurant. He has, apparently, had a wood-burning oven in his home for several years, which I fear is hardly a qualification for opening a full-blown restaurant.
Whatever Sean’s background, the menu at Fantinos is very much Italian, but in a British-Italian-sort-of-way way showing little regionality or surprises.
There are antipasti of meats, soups, risotto, olives, sundried tomatoes and so on. Primi first-courses come as pizza and pasta. There are only two secondi of a pollo alla Milanese and a tagliata di manzo al pepe nero e rosmarino – peppered steak with rosemary. At £25 this is the most expensive dish on the menu; the rest vary respectfully from £5 for most starters to around £10-13 for pizza and pasta dishes.
A more than acceptable Tuscan plate of salami and cheese came heavy on good quality meat but a little light on the cheese. Calamari fritti is not an easy dish to get right this far away from the sea. At Fantinos though, despite a lacklustre sauce, they did manage surprisingly moreish tender rings of lightly battered squid.
Sadly, I have come to realise, there are few restaurants able to produce a good risotto. Not so here. This one came creamy but still with that necessary bite and slight graininess of the Arborio and packed with flavour.
The portion size however was a little on the stingy side for £15, but once pointed out, apologies were profuse for the mistake and an adjustment made to the final bill.
The Milanese was a tender, local free-range chicken fillet and came handsomely dressed in breadcrumbs and served with spaghetti and tomato sauce. The chicken was lightly fried in olive oil and resulted in a deliciously moreish dish without a speck of grease on the plate.
But what of the pizza?
Tucked in the corner of the main restaurant is a full-on beast of a wood burning oven. It provides both conversation and entertainment for diners as it spits out wonderfully thin-crusted bubbling pizza and Italian breads. My vegetarian pizza came generously loaded with good quality ingredients, plenty of cheese and large enough to outface me and justify the price tag.
The desserts were as pleasing, though again, unsurprising. A ubiquitous tiramisu, though clumsily over- drenched in chocolate powder, was almost faultless. A selection of three ice creams included Eton mess, salted caramel (lovely) and lemon and mascarpone. There was no mention of whether these were homemade, though they were good enough for us to not pursue their origin.
The night of our visit to Fantinos was bitingly cold, but everything inside was inviting. From the roaring fire in the bar, vases of fresh, tulips and hyacinths and helpful staff; everyone was working hard to please. And they did.
If I have any worries, it does not lay with the food or the staff. Far from it. It is the sheer size of the place. The bar area may be warm and cosy, but the main dining room is huge and less inviting. Such a large room needs people for it to work and to create a lively atmosphere. At the start of our meal it wasn’t but improved as the place filled. That is OK on a weekend, but mid-week in the winter may be a problem.
Praise should go to Fantinos in creating an appealing restaurant despite all the odds being set against them. They are not without fault, but none too serious to stop me going back. If they tighten up the speed of service a tad, get rid of that chocolate shaker and give some thought to the dining room layout, they are on to a winner.
• Fantinos Italian Restaurant, Front Street, Sowerby, Thirsk YO7 1JF; telephone 01845 523655, www.fantinos.co.uk
Open Tuesday to Sunday, coffee and lunch, 11am-3pm; dinner, 6-11pm.