Born in Sicily, Salvatore first came to Leeds in 1954 and with his wife Nunzia opened the Unicorn, a transport café on Stanningley Road, followed by the Blue Gardenia on Boar Lane. But when Gip and John were born, they returned to Salerno to run a trattoria, where Gip learned his craft. In 1970, a cholera scare in Europe devastated the restaurant business, and they decided to try their luck in Leeds again.
Four decades later, we don’t have to queue, but on a Monday night in March the place is fizzing at 7pm with the happy clatter of folk having fun. John greets us like long-lost cousins, and we admire the smart, stylish, newly-zhuzhed-up interior, all walnut walls, low lighting, burnt orange banquettes and impressive open kitchen.
I’m glad to report that the menu remains pretty much the same as it was, with more refined presentation and a price hike (a Margherita will set you back about eight quid; it was 75p in 1976) and I’m thrilled to see that polpette is on the antipasti list. A Dammone family favourite, it’s a classic dish from Campania and appeared on their very first menu. It’s stood the test of time and the pork balls are as good as remembered, perfect pillows, whisper-soft with a tiny fleck of fennel, a kick of Calabrian Njuda and a ridiculously dense tomato sauce. Mopped up with a couple of slivers of bruschetta, I’m transported back to my 20-something self.
Beef Carpaccio is a stunning plate; amped up with a classic dressing, its roots are in Venice. Giuseppe Cipiani of Harry’s Bar fame macerated raw beef in oil and lemon, and the dressing is basically a mayonnaise with lemon and Worcestershire sauce drizzled on top, served here with a fist full of rocket and shower of parmesan. Our third antipasti, coarse chicken liver pate is fragrant with sage and Marsala; scooped up with toasted sourdough, it’s a belter.
We have pizza, of course, since they’ve gone to the trouble of importing a Neapolitan stone-bake oven the price of a small car. My chum has the Internazionale (ham, mushrooms, peppers, pepperoni ‘no seafood please’) and it’s the size of a man’s face – between us we couldn’t finish it, much as we wanted to. One of the newcomers, Fettucine Alla Lucy keels up. It’s a pretty bowl of prosciutto, peas and parmesan cream piled on top of a mound of textured, fresh egg pasta, with specks of mint folded through – fabulously satisfying and the colour of spring. Then, the dish of the year arrives.
I’m a sucker for rustic food. Food that’s been gracing tables for generations, feeding families from the fields; food that’s packed with flavour, made from the heart. Agnello is such a dish. A chunk of the pinkest, tender lamb sits on a pile of creamy cannellini beans, with spring cabbage for bite, a fragrant broth sooths, and a smack of salsa rossa completes the picture. I’m swooning, and not just because I’ve had a couple of glasses of red – which must have a billing.
Mandrarossa is a Nero D’Avolo and the Dammone brothers have been buying from the Settesoli Cooperative vineyard in southern Sicily since day one. They imported their house wine in two litre bottles and served it in brown earthenware jugs. Man, I remember that.
Head chef Jono Elvin has worked closely with Gip to develop the menu; Elvin’s backstory includes the Star at Harome, Stockdales and Gordon Ramsay at Claridges, and he’s been given his head to include a number of new dishes, such as Osso Buco and Pizza Tartufata.
We finish up with vanilla cheese cake, and a pool of sharpish rhubarb coulis is a perfect foil for the rich cake; a text book panna cotta topped with softly spicy blood orange jelly and pistachio rubble is polished off quick time. Tiramisu is present and correct, of course, and a wicked looking orange polenta cake with chocolate lands on the next table.
Dinner was flawless and we had a blast. If the Dammones bottled this winning formula they could sell it for a king’s ransom. Whatever the alchemy is – a deep knowledge of their ingredients, or just great food at ungrasping prices, it weaves its magic every time.
It’s gratifying to have witnessed the growth of Salvos and seen its success down the years; Gip and John have never rested on their laurels, always tweaking, always developing, and as passionate about their cherished history and culture as they were back in in 1976. Walk into Salvos 2017 and feel the love.
Salvos, 115 Otley Road, Headingley, Leeds LS6 3PX. 0113 275 5017. www.salvos.co.uk
Open daily 12 – 2, 6 – 10. Antipasti from £5, pasta dishes from £8, pizzas from £8.50, mains from £14.