Bert D’Agostino is a serial gastronomic entrepreneur and for a man with such a practised eye for the main chance, opportunities don’t come much sweeter than North Berwick, a rich little town with a sprinkling of restaurants that D’Agostino calls “the Biarritz of the north”. (For the record, I’ve been to Biarritz and it just ain’t so.)
It wasn’t, therefore, exactly a surprise when the Edinburgh restaurateur bought the Dalrymple Arms, an old man’s boozer in the heart of this beautiful little East Lothian seaside town, and turned it into an Italian restaurant called Zitto (which is apparently an Italian command meaning ‘shut up’, although we did half wonder whether it was in homage to the collection of Zippo lighters that used to be mounted on a wall of the old bar).
Italian restaurants are D’Agostino’s usual modus operandi, with Umberto’s in Leith still his showpiece, but he’s worked his way eastwards via the Castle Inn in Dirleton and has now well and truly arrived in the douce little fishing port with Zitto. Since opening earlier this year the place has been stowed out, and on the Saturday night we ate there, a succession of taxis and minibuses were constantly decanting diners. This brisk business was nothing to do with the festive season though: our friends in the town tell us the place has been doing a roaring trade ever since it opened.
Part of Zitto’s success has been in its ambience, which is all wine bar chic with wooden floors, subtle lighting and reproductions of 1920s posters of Italian cities covering the walls. There’s a big bar serving 50 wines, most of them by the glass, and we were lucky enough to have a table in the window, from where we could look at the amazing Christmas decorations and watch the townsfolk come and go.
The food offering also works nicely with the wine bar theme, with the emphasis on the house speciality of spuntini, the Italian version of tapas. While all the other main bases are covered by a handful of restaurants in the town – Osteria, run by the former owners of Cosmo, does upmarket Italian; Jean-Paul at the Macdonald Marine does fine dining; the excellent Fly-Half Grill at the Nether Abbey Hotel provides everyday dining – the mix of spuntini, pizza, pasta and comfort food staples has kept the tills ringing over.
We decided we’d work around those dishes the restaurant considers to be its specialities, so we ordered half a dozen of the Italian tapas, choosing the geographically diverse Roman risotto (which came with chicken, beef and pork), Sicilian meatballs, Calabrian calamari, some mozzarella fingers in breadcrumbs and tomato sauce, chorizo and black pudding, spicy sausage and potato salad, melanzane (oven-baked aubergine, tomato and parmesan) and crostini topped with mushrooms.
The quality was generally satisfactory, though also pretty variable. On the debit side, the risotto was a little heavy, the batter around the squid rings was more than a little flaccid, and the crostini could have done with twice as many mushrooms (why does anyone ever stint on mushrooms, it’s not as if they’re expensive?). Against that there were just as many positives: the spicy meatballs were perfectly judged, the melanzane was a beautifully warming, classic Italian dish and the sausage that went with the potato salad was spicy enough to put some colour in even the coldest cheeks. Best of all, however, was the black pudding and chorizo – who knows how often this combo gets served back in the old country, but in chilly North Berwick it went down a treat.
Our main courses were in much the same vein. In fact, if anything the options were more prosaic and far less adventurous than the starters and spuntini, with a huge emphasis on pizza, pasta and chicken, almost to the exclusion of everything else. Bea decided to go native and plumped for the aglio olio pepperoncino, which was basically spaghetti with garlic, olive oil and hot chilli, a simple dish she ate a lot when she briefly studied in Italy many years ago and which she often cooks for herself. It was, she reckoned, pre-prepared pasta which didn’t have enough chilli for her own taste, but otherwise it just about passed muster.
I thought I’d see what the kitchen was made of and ordered the lamb spezzatino. This is an Italian stew slowly cooked in a casserole of red wine, vegetables and rosemary topped with sliced potatoes, and was served with vegetables that had been roasted for so long half of them had been rendered inedible. Again, it was absolutely fine, although the lamb wasn’t particularly succulent, the whole dish had been superheated and I was surprised to find the stew contained offal, presumably to bulk it out and keep costs under control.
Pudding, surprisingly for an Italian restaurant, turned out to be arguably the best course of all. My tartufo nero – vanilla ice-cream with an Amaretto centre covered with crushed meringue and chocolate drops – was outstandingly sweet and I wouldn’t hesitate to order it again. Bea made do with a bowl of ice-cream from Luca’s, the Morningside and Musselburgh company that once had a cafe in North Berwick and that has been selling its fantastic gelati to East Lothian under the stewardship of the Scappaticcio family since the 1880s. Bea knew what to expect and wasn’t disappointed.
Which, by and large, just about sums up an evening at Zitto. This isn’t high-falutin’ haute cuisine, but the place is perpetually busy, the staff are wonderfully patient and when it comes to the food you pretty much get what you pay for.
10 Quality Street, North Berwick, East Lothian (01620 892 477, www.zitto.co.uk)
Spuntini £3.95-£5.25 Starters £3.95-£6.95 Main courses £5.45-£16.95 Puddings £3.95-£4.95 (cheeseboard £6.95) Rating: 6/10