UNTIL his eponymous restaurant closed its doors four years ago after the best part of a quarter of a century, Giancarlo Tinelli’s place of work was the classic neighbourhood Italian.
139 Easter Road, Edinburgh
Main course £9.60-£17.80
Puddings £4.40-£5.50 Cheese £7.20
Based on Easter Road in Edinburgh, opposite the Hibs ground of the same name, it was small, friendly, sensibly priced and with a roster of archetypally no-nonsense peasant dishes which conspicuously eschewed pizza. Ristorante Tinelli was a rock solid fixture on the Edinburgh dining scene.
When the time came to retire to Duddingston, however, Milan’s finest passed the reins to a couple of ambitious twentysomethings who were keen to maintain his legacy. Chef Stefano Di Caterina and Graziano Spano, who between them worked at Edinburgh Italian restaurants as well known and respected as Santini, Cosmo and Giuliano’s, took over the tiny Leith eaterie and changed as little as possible. The place got a lick of paint and the new name of Al Dente, but that was about it: presumably the logic was that if the homespun dining area remained unaltered, so would the ambience.
To some extent this has proved to be the case. Despite the stark lighting and no-frills decor, there’s an intimacy and continuity about Al Dente that draws you in, while in the front of house Spano, who has now crossed into his thirties, retains such a palpably earnest and eager desire to make sure your meal goes as well as possible that you almost yearn for it to be perfection on a plate.
So it’s easy to overlook the proudly dog-eared decor and the utilitarian surroundings; in truth, they wouldn’t matter if the food were as memorable as Giancarlo Tinelli’s. However, on the day I visited there was a world of difference between the Milanese’s earthy peasant fare – I can still almost taste the rabbit special in a creamy marsala-style sauce even though it’s been five years since I last ate it – and the food we found at Al Dente.
Now, I’m more than willing to believe the fault lies with me, not least because so many Leithers I know still swear by the place and urged me to try the pasta menu (advice I stupidly ignored), but on the day of my visitation things were markedly different from the times I used to visit Tinelli’s every few months. The current pizza-less menu conjures up images of traditional Tuscan trattoria, but the execution was less silver spoon, more wooden spoon.
Take our starters. The good news is that the salmon and lemon mousse was served with some chickpea fritters, which had a nicely coarse texture and hadn’t retained too much oil, as is often the case. The problem with the mousse, however, wasn’t just that it was sloppily presented, but that the texture and appearance of the big dollop of pink material in the centre of the plate bore no relation to a conventional mousse, but was instead like a mound of super-heavy and intensely flavoured taramasalata. It would have been pretty ordinary taramasalata too, but as a mousse it was a definite fail.
Sadly, the mousse was more enjoyable than my starter, which was described as “finely cut veal with a creamy sauce of tuna and capers”. Also known by its Sunday name of vitello tonnato, this is a classic Piedmontese dish that is served cold at special occasions. If you’re making an effort, it is usually served as small, two-inch discs of veal topped with a spoonful of a creamy tuna and caper sauce that can also be pepped up with anchovies, and if you’re in freeform mode the meat is served as it’s sliced and slathered with the sauce.
This wasn’t a good example of this dish, though. The veal was parched and flaky, and tasted as if it had been stored with the sauce, so that it was almost infused with the taste of tuna and capers. The sauce itself was served in such a small quantity there was barely enough to counteract the dryness of the thickly sliced veal. A lack of sauce is a pet hate of mine, as it was of Tinelli, who would serve oceans of the stuff with every dish (in fact, he only seemed to have a single one-size-fits-all creamy sauce, although the regulars didn’t seem to mind).
Our main courses were better, but still not great. The monkfish, for instance, was supposed to come on a bed of potatoes which mysteriously failed to materialise, although it did come with a nice variation on a classic Sicilian caponata, which is an aubergine and celery stew.
This time it was broken down into its constituent parts and had pine nuts and raisins added, although we could find no trace of several of some other promised ingredients, notably the olives and courgettes. We wondered, too, just how fresh the monkfish, with its slightly watery, spongy texture, could be.
My main course was stinco di agnello con fagioli, a classic northern Italian comfort food dish that consists of lamb shank served with what appeared to be chilli-free chilli mash and an excellent Italian bean casserole; dark and rich, this was exactly what the soul craves on a chilly day in the capital. The lamb shank could have done with slightly less fat, but this was definitely the highlight so far.
Fortunately I rounded off with the best dish of my meal, a wonderful rendition of cassata, the traditional Sicilian pudding that mixes candied fruit, ricotta and ice-cream which is then encased in a marzipan coating. It is possibly the only thing in the world that’s sweeter than baklava but I’ve got a horribly sweet tooth and loved it.
It also cheered me up because this was exactly how I wanted to finish my meal at a would-be local restaurant, enthusing over a speciality that pushed all the right buttons. Sadly, it was one small shard of light in an otherwise gloomy meal. Maybe I’ll try the pasta next time.
• Al Dente, 139 Easter Road, Edinburgh, 0131-652 1932, www.al-dente-restaurant.co.uk