It might be a thousand or so miles from Italy, but at Riccis Tapas and Chicchetti in Halifax, Amanda Wragg finds the real taste of Venice.
What do Venice and Halifax have in common? Monumental architecture. Check. Navigable waterways. Check. A glorious stone flagged historic square fringed with cafes. Check. Suave, cosmopolitan townspeople. Er ... ok, but we’ve been known to scrub up quite well. And now – cicchetti! (Venetian snacks, usually served in bacari, small, traditional bars often hidden in the back streets of Venice and now to be found in West Yorkshire at the less than romantic sounding location, F Mill.)
Dean Clough was famously the biggest carpet factory in the world in the mid-1800s, employing 5,000 people; about a thousand less work there now, and in very different businesses, but there’s a palpable energy about the place.
On a still, spring-like evening, the 19th-entury scrubbed up stone glows at F Mill; squeeze your eyes into slits and it’s not a huge leap to imagine you might be at La Cantina on Calle San Felice.
Seasoned restaurateur Michael Ricci has colonized the ground floor, judiciously retaining the lofty, vaulted red brick ceiling and exposed stone walls and adding dark wood floors, white leather banquettes along one side of the long, narrow room and a row of high stools on a slightly raised plinth which is rather pretentiously called ‘the chef’s table’ but means that you have an uncluttered view of what’s happening in the kitchen.
There’s also Philipe Starck-esque Ghost chairs and glass chandeliers, a smattering of pipe work and block wooden walls that look as if a hipster designer has had unbridled fun with giant Jenga. Light pours in through tall windows. The effect is post-industrial chic – it’s not harsh, but rather comfortable, and a lively buzz fills the room – there’s a good crowd – a table of giggling women, couples, families and smartly dressed office workers winding down.
Service is breezy and the staff are well briefed – what they don’t know they ask and come back quickly with the answer. It’s busy, they’ve a lot on, they’re turning tables round in an instant – but find time to banter good naturedly – our cheerful waiter Jacob kept a beady eye on the job and entertained us at the same time.
The menu is printed on your paper placemat and reaches across various regions of Spain as well as Italy, with the odd English inclusion (unless the sticky toffee pudding is Tuscan) so tapas sit alongside cicchetti, and lip-smackingly good it all looks. Specials (some of which change daily) are chalked on a small slate which serves only to make choosing harder. And how many dishes should we order? Actually it doesn’t matter, just go for what appeals most then order more if you’ve a hunger on you.
‘Nibbles’ seem a good idea whilst we’re scratching our heads. Mini chorizos served hot with cider, boquerones (anchovies) on toast and a bowl of fat olives arrive to kick start taste buds.
Pan con tomate, essentially tomatoes on toast is an everyday snack in Spain – simplicity itself but in the wrong hands can be just a soggy mess, but here, a rich, slightly piquant slick on crunchy bruschetta. A request for bread to mop up the chorizo juices brings chunks of golden Puglian pane di Altamura, made with maize flour and beautifully dense.
A succession of plates arrive; succulent queen scallops with lemon, garlic and caper butter (and, I think, samphire), a dinky cassoulet of mussels in tomato, garlic and chilli and a crisp rosemary torta with blue cheese and balsamic mushrooms, each one three or four tasty mouthfuls.
But nothing prepared me for what was to come. Iberico suckling pig roasted in rosemary, thyme and garlic fell off the bone and dissolved in the mouth, a tiny triumph, sticky, fragrant and the Mediterranean on a plate. The least attractive but tastiest plate of the night was porchini gnocci with wood pigeon and green peppercorns which demonstrated sophisticated thinking and long slow cooking.
Tiny, soft cushions full of intense mushroom hid under perfectly seared, tender pigeon with a broth so deep in flavor it must have been marinating for a fortnight. The impact was immense. It seems a bit shallow to mention how good the chips are. But hell they’re good – even better when dipped into the cute pot of pillar box red, spiky Salsa Brava.
You’ve guessed by now that I could have worked my way through the menu. The lamb rump with chickpeas, broad beans and minted pesto will get some attention next time – oh, and the soft shelled crab with ginger alioli – but for research purposes there are desserts to be had.
Santiago tart (jammy, almondy, like a fine Bakewell) is pleasing – perfect pastry – but a slice of the mountain honey and pine nut has us rolling our eyes with delight and squabbling over which of us sneaked the extra-large spoonful. The flourless orange cake arrives at the next table and elicits a similar reaction.
There’s a good looking Spanish and Italian cheese plate and a short list of sherries (a couple of Amontillados and a fine sounding Manzanilla) but they’ll have to wait. A very reasonable (and surprisingly good) Romanian Sauvignon Blanc served us nicely.
This is rustic food at its best – elegant, simple and bursting with flavour. And there’s something very sociable about grazing, dipping, reaching across and sharing that invites chat and laughter. If making food memories is what modern eating is about, Michael Ricci’s got it right. What more do you want? A gondola on the Grand Canal?
Riccis’s Tapas & Cicchetti, F Mill, Dean Clough, Halifax. 01422 410204, www.riccistapasandcicchetti.co.uk. Cicchetti and tapas between £2.50 and £6.50, bottle of Umbrele Sauvignon Blanc £12.50