I’m not one for chain restaurants, even less so with a celebrity name attached to it. Why? For no other reason than there are so many independents where I would rather spend my money.
I did, however, once really like Pizza Express as back in the day they did a pretty good pizza, though I am going back quite some years. But that is about as far as it goes for me. So, just how I ended up on a very busy Friday night in Gino D’Acampo’s newish Italian restaurant on Park Row, Leeds, is anyone’s guess.
The chef and former reality TV star opened in Leeds a few months ago following on from the success of branches in London’s Euston station and Manchester. With just three restaurants under his name, this surely then is not a chain, but they come under the umbrella of Individual Restaurants which happens to be one of the UK’s leading restaurant companies with several brands to its name. Enough said.
The restaurant was heaving, but this was a Friday and in the heart of Leeds nightlife so expected and what you hope for if you are Gino. Inside, Gino’s name is on every conceivable scrap of marketing material; his books are for sale and his need to impress exactly how many celebrities he knows grinned down at me from photos on every wall. If the food lives up to the hype on a menu that makes pleasant enough reading, then I can forgive this level of vanity as he is hardly the first chef to tout his name this way.
Staff are in abundance, and I took a guess that the ones miked up like Special Branch to be the more senior. But looking again, the waiter assigned to napkin folding also had a headset; maybe he was trying to drown out the very loud music? Like well-ordered soldiers, staff arrive one by one to do their duty: drinks order, tick; menu delivery, tick; arrival of drinks, tick; food order taken, tick. There is a system at play here, and I am thinking the smart-suited one parading up and down is the one directing their moves. It is all a tad too perfunctory for my liking.
A sharing plate of tre cicchetti (three small dishes) comes with a hefty £15.50 price tag, but the three are sizeable enough to share comfortably. On toasted Ciabatta came crispy cod, grilled prawns, and a simple tomato topping. The cod and prawns were the real winners on the plate alongside the lacklustre tomato offering.
Rather oddly, on the menu, Gino says of the saltimbocca (£15), “here I have substituted veal with turkey for the festive period”. Perhaps someone needed to point out that it was now February. Turkey is so less forgiving in this dish, so it came as no surprise when it was a little dry and tight; the flavour of the Marsala was negligible, lost in what was at best a greasy dish. This classic of Italian cucina was not great though it was edible, which is more than can be said for the pizza on the specials menu.
Described as pizza con sacrole (chicory), it promised that the bitterness of the escarole works beautifully with the salty Leccino olives (£9.50). Apparently, according to Gino, you will not find this pizza on any other UK restaurant menu as he holds the secret of the recipe. Well, I can only hope you keep the recipe a secret, Gino, because I for one hope no-one finds it out, as this was possibly the worst pizza I have had in years. Again, an over-enthusiasm for oil drowned out the flavour of the leaves and the promised Leccino olives were nothing more than cheap, black ones. I challenged the use of the olives, but no one including the chef would admit what was going on. The mozzarella was rubbery and the final straw, the pizza was topped with courgette fries. Yes, tiny, slightly greasy fries all over it. I took two bites then left it.
On a few up notes, the wines here are excellent, with plenty of unusual varietals at good prices (from £5.75, 175ml glass). A chocolate fondant pudding was more than passable. The decor is bang on trend, the seating spacious and downstairs there is a very cool, relaxing Prosecco Bar, and with that, I have no more to say.
• Gino D’Acampo – My Restaurant, 11/12 Park Row, Leeds LS1 5HD, 0113 244 3220, ginodacamporestaurants.com. Open Monday to Saturday, 12-11pm; Sunday, 12-10.30pm.