IT’S a Wednesday night and we’re looking for somewhere achingly Italian, so thick with the aroma of Tuscany, Umbria and Puglia it will make up for missing out on a slice of la dolce vita for the third year in a row.
18-24 Deanhaugh Street. Edinburgh (0131-315 2860, www.italian-kitchen.net)
Starters £3.95-£8.95, Main courses £8.95-£19.95, Puddings £4.95
We have a mental tick list we quickly run through as we arrive at our carefully chosen venue. Cheesy Piazza San Marco-style musack? Tick. Italian flags and pictures adorning every wall? Tick. Waiters babbling merrily in Italian? Tick. A wide range of decently priced pizza and pasta dishes? Tick. A crowd of happy people, most of them locals? Tick yet again.
Italian Kitchen in Edinburgh’s Stockbridge seems to have it all. This little basement restaurant, about 100 yards away from the ancient bridge over the Water of Leith that gives this increasingly vibrant area of the capital its name, is invariably full to overbrimming. Not only that, but everyone seems to be having a good time and the wine is flowing.
Bea, who lived briefly in Venice and Umbria and knows her lupini beans, inevitably manages to find a drawback – there is no pasta vongole, the clam-crammed dish that is her favourite fodder. But apart from that, Italian Kitchen looks for all the world like the perfect local trattoria.
Edinburgh is not Glasgow, where there seems to be no limit to the number of Italian restaurants that can be crammed into one city. But there isn’t a shortage of competition in the capital either. In fact, thanks in part to the fact that pizza and pasta are virtually the national diet, the number of Italian restaurants in Edinburgh may even have crept into three figures, including some very good direct rivals. La Partenope, Nonna’s Kitchen, Locanda de Gusti, Divino Enoteca, Centrotre, La Favorita, La Bruschetta and Valvona & Crolla are just a few of the more consistent competitors.
Yet somehow, especially now that Tom Kitchin has occupied the space that used to be the venerable San Marco, Stockbridge seems to be free of Italians except for Italian Kitchen (and the ubiquitous kiddie ghetto that is neighbouring Pizza Express), and you would have to conclude that it’s because this popular little place does such a good job that there’s no room for another. Certainly, several folk I know go there regularly, and with main courses starting from £9 it fits comfortably into the can’t-be-bothered-to-cook territory.
But there’s more to its appeal than that. Chef Riccardo Verrecchia tries to keep it fresh with seasonal ingredients, and generally moves outside the usual gamut of identikit Italian dishes. If his off-piste excursions play well with a nicely heeled local clientele that is willing to challenge its palate, there’s also a commitment to locality that goes down a storm with Stockbridgers: meat is sourced from George Bower’s and fish from Armstrong’s, while the results are also displayed at the farmers’ market held a stone’s throw away each Sunday.
With all this in mind, we tucked into our meal with high hopes. Bea quickly got over her “I can’t believe there’s no vongole” routine, and plumped for the tower of grilled aubergine, roasted tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and parmesan to start, while I went for the ricotta dumplings in a tomato and pig’s cheek sauce. And then the serious business of eating began.
My starter was spot on, with the super-firm dumplings nicely complemented by a simple tomato sauce that was given depth and body by shards of pig’s cheek. The size of the portion was also perfect, leaving me satisfied yet wanting more. Sadly, Bea’s tasteless, watery aubergine stack left her neither satisfied nor wanting more. This was a strangely bland enigma of a dish, in which the parmesan, mozzarella and tomatoes were complete subsumed by the thick, undercooked and watery slices of aubergine that contrasted very clearly to my well-balanced starter.
Our main courses were similarly curate’s-eggy. My veal fillet wasn’t the tenderest I’ve ever had but it was unusually flavoursome. The dry marsala, wild mushroom and pea sauce was enticingly dark and rich, but there was simply too little of it, while the accompanying sweetbreads seemed puffy, bloated and tasteless. It was a dish that was frustratingly close to hitting the bullseye, but which bounced off the wire and hurtled back towards the oche instead.
Bea’s linguine with king prawns was similarly confusing. The pasta was perfectly cooked and good quality, if overly oily, but despite the promise of garlic, fresh chilli, parsley, white wine and rocket, the whole effect was curiously under-seasoned until a whole load of salt, pepper and parmesan had been added by Bea. There weren’t a lot of king prawns, but then she hadn’t expected many for less than £13.
The high point of our meal was the arrival of my zabaglione. Made from egg yolks, sugar and sweet marsala wine, this is always a light, refreshing way to finish off any meal, but this was the best in recent memory: unfeasibly light and absolutely hoaching with marsala, it was the perfect end to my dinner. Bea’s tiramisu was good and surprisingly firm, and also had a commendably high alcohol content.
What to make of it all? There is so much to like about Italian Kitchen, from its knowledgeable and efficient service, sensible prices and solid wine list to its utter lack of pretension and unmistakably Italian ambience. But we weren’t blown away by the food. Granted, we didn’t order pizzas, which are reputedly cheaper and better than at Pizza Express, but we did try a wide enough range of dishes to think it’s worth trying again, but not yet worth wholeheartedly recommending.