The streets of Scarborough, I tend to find, are best viewed with your eyes half shut. Wander round wide-eyed and you notice the cracks, the blistered paint, the wind-blown dust clinging to the walls.
Narrow your stare, though, and the glorious Victorian architecture seems as new as the day. The shop fronts, basement flats and gable ends are varied and ornate, and on the type of quiet winter night when I find myself seeking out the rightly-loved Lanterna restaurant the town shows you what it once was – a handsome, romantic place.
The one thing squinting can’t ever do is make Scarborough a foodies heaven. Fish and chips aside you’ll struggle to eat well, chain pubs and OK-at-best restaurants abound, so Lanterna doesn’t have much trouble maintaining its reputation as the best place to eat in the town. It’s a reputation, however, that is thoroughly deserves.
Lanterna has been operating since the 70s but for the past 15 years has been in the keep of proud Piedmontian Giorgio Allesio and his English wife Rachel, who runs front of house. Giorgio is the embodiment of ebullience, up at dawn to hit the fish market, prepping and experimenting all day in the kitchen and then bounding into the dining room during opening hours to bring cheer and share his earnest enthusiasm with the fully stuffed, smiling punters. Giorgio is Lanterna’s greatest asset and his gioia di vivere is present in every mouthful of the traditional northwest Italian food he produces.
Some may criticise the Lanterna for having a “dated” interior, it’s not dated, it’s classic. Just squint a bit. On the way to the restaurant I passed a pub that proudly described itself on its own signage as a “contemporary bar”. Not only is this epithet confusingly meaningless but it also puts you off entering on the grounds of fatuousness. There is no such posturing or deferring to modernity at Lanterna, you could be sitting down any time after about 1972. And it’s a time-worn feel that the great and good appreciate.
Local legend Alan Ayckbourn is a long-term customer, pop artist Peter Blake was instructed to eat here by David Hockney and the great man himself likes the place so much that he once donated a sketch of a vase of flowers when presented with his bill (a copy of the drawing graces the front of the menu, the original is safely tucked up in the bank. Very wise). Not that the presence of celebs is any signifier of a great restaurant, it’s the food that counts and the food is quite superb.
Starters like chickpea stew with oxtail and polenta with egg yolks and roasted peppers are wonderfully, deeply flavourful; meatballs in tomato sauce are comforting and fillets of ling in tempura batter with an orange balsamic dressing are zingy and taste as fresh as the day. The best starter I found was spaghetti with velvet crab. It’s on its way to becoming Giorgio’s signature dish and quite rightly so. He makes all his own pasta and here it’s solely used (as it should be) to carry the taste of the utterly delicious crab and light cream sauce. Truly delicious stuff.
The mains section of the menu offers steaks, risottos and truffle dishes but we went for rich, venison-filled ravioli and perfectly-cooked monkfish in a pink peppercorn sauce. Accompanying these dishes were little bowls of veg which, quite honestly, serve little purpose other than fill you up so that even if you left without dessert you would know you’d had a good feed. There was absolutely no chance of us skipping afters, though. Not once we’d seen them.
Giorgio makes his own ice cream with a different flavour daily, so you could end up ordering anything from ginger to (I kid you not) black pudding flavours depending on the night you visit. We had a quite spectacular mascarpone and gorgonzola ice cream cake with honey and walnuts and a zabaglione, which Giorgio suddenly appeared tableside to prepare. Having the chef turn up at your table to whisk up this heavenly pud in a copper pot while charming the pants off you proved a highlight of the visit and evidence (if further were needed) of what a special place the Lanterna is.
Cheap, however, it isn’t. Our meal set us back £115, but we did have a couple of extras along the way. You could easily spend £20 or £30 less and still leave worrying about the elasticity of your clothing. Also, every penny goes on the plate. Giorgio is truly dedicated to his craft and clearly puts flavour and provenance before profit. He sources fish from the harbour, meats from the butchers round the corner, veg from local growers and makes his own pasta – everything else he fetches from his home region in Italy. The wine and truffles particularly are sourced on the annual trips he and Rachel take to Piedmont and they (along with other select ingredients) are imported and incorporated perfectly with the local produce to create joyfully life-affirming dishes that taste traditional and original all at once. Giorgio and Rachel operate their wonderful restaurant with passion, humour and warmth. It is easily the best Italian I’ve been to in Yorkshire and Scarborough should be grateful that the Lanterna exists and very proud that that it exists in their town.
Lanterna, 33 Queen Street, Scarborough. 01723 363616, www.lanterna-ristorante.co.uk
Opening times: Monday to Saturday 7 to 9:30pm.