Years ago when I lived on the green line between Headingley and Meanwood, I would sometimes join a game of pool at the Beckett’s Arms, a seriously rundown drinking hole on Meanwood Road. That all changed when they took out the pool table, ripped up the sticky carpets and gave it an expensive makeover with the stated aim of “bringing in the coach trade from Horsforth”.
There being no coach trade in Horsforth, the Beckett’s soon fell back into its pre-makeover torpor. They briefly experimented with putting their barmaids in shiny hot pants (not all of whom, it must be said, were best fitted for the costumes) but that failed to turn things around and finally in 2008 it was torn down and replaced by a block of executive flats and what developers prefer to call “retail units”.
Even the invasion of young professionals didn’t immediately transform this busy Meanwood crossroads and the retail units remained resolutely unoccupied until Waitrose opened nearby and, lo, the Waitrose effect quickly followed. First, the East of Arcadia cafe bar, then the Italian trattoria Zucco, bringing an unexpected whiff of cool to Meanwood.
Inside are black and white floor tiles, glossy brick subway tiles, bare filament light bulbs, banquettes and wooden bistro furniture with high stools for dining at the bar. I was immediately reminded of Polpo, Russell Norman’s Venetian bacaro that he opened in Soho in 2009 and had them queuing round Beak Street for his cicchetti menu of small plates for sharing, with a best selling cookbook hard on its heels.
When you learn who is behind Zucco it comes as no surprise: the brothers Leggiero. Rosario and Michael are both Leeds born and bred to Italian parents. Rosario worked for 17 years as head chef at Salvo’s while Michael was front of house and general manager at, you guessed it, Polpo.
Zucco is similarly arranged as a series of small dishes for sharing: boccone, pizzette, cold meats and cheese, fish, meat, vegetables and dessert. So far, so Polpo. We’re advised to order two or three each at prices from £3 for olives to £9.20 for the calves liver, with most of the dishes averaging just over a fiver. We start with “boccone” – small mouthfuls. The arancini – deep fried rice balls (£3.50) – are rather bland. I’ve had far better, stuffed with ham and cheese or ragu at Trinacria, the little Sicilian cafe on York’s Bishopthorpe Road. These ones are stuffed with rice and possibly cheese and though they are not exactly singing with flavour they’re hot and crisp with a satisfying smack from the mayo dip.
Another boccone is octopus and pickled vegetables on carta di musica (£3.70) – crisp bread supposedly so thin you can read music through it. With little cuts of octopus, it’s a neat taster at the price.
A stew of rabbit, pancetta and potatoes is more generous – a cereal bowlful and again well priced at £7.95. The stew has good flavour from the tomato and white wine, but it is let down by the pre-cooked then reheated flavour of the rabbit.
Orecchiette – little ears of pasta – with tenderstem broccoli, salami and nduja (a spicy pork paste) is much better. Light on the tender stem but rich and tomatoey with the nduja packing its punch.
So much for the quibbles as the next three dishes really took off: taglioline al nero di sepia (£8.95) – squid ink pasta – with soft shell crab, sumptuous, olive oily and delicious; and an excellent spaghetti with razor clams, garlic and chilli (£7.80) – tons of garlic, not too much chilli and three or four razor clams. In a straight lift from the Polpo menu we ordered deep fried zucchini and mint (£3.20), a last minute panic-buy in case we didn’t have enough. We did and it was terrific.
We’d over-ordered naturally and with a bill racking up towards £60 for three at lunch, we passed on dessert but spotted some good looking dishes: affogato, pannacotta, tiramisu, sorbets and ices. I could have been tempted by pecorino with sardo and truffle honey, but in the end went for coffee and biscotti instead. An interesting wine list, indeed a welcome break from those off the peg lists that touch all the usual, safety first, bases, included a lovely crisp, white Sardinian Vermentino that, in a nice touch, our waitress offered to let us sample first.
So how does Zucco stand-up against its doppelganger? I’d heard mixed reports when it first opened two years ago but on this evidence it’s now hitting its stride. If Zucco is less Venetian and more southern Italian than Polpo, there’s not much more than a slice of carta di musica between them. Zucco makes a fair stab at the casual, laid-back chic that Polpo so successfully affects.
Best of all though, this is not your regular pizza/pasta Italian and there are dishes here (and the menu changes regularly) that you won’t easily see elsewhere in Yorkshire. Cheerfully recommended.
• Zucco, 603 Meanwood Road, Leeds LS6 4AY, 0113 224 9679, www.zucco.co.uk; open: Tuesday to Friday, 12-2.30pm & 6pm-10pm (10.30pm Friday); Saturday, 12-10.30pm; Sunday, 12-8.30pm. Price: dinner for two: £40 plus wine and coffee.