I TEND to know my own mind, so it’s not very often this gig gives me a crisis of conscience: I simply go, eat and report as honestly as I can on what I’ve experienced.
Locanda de Gusti
102 Dalry Road, Edinburgh EH11 2DW
Starters £3.95-£7.95 Main courses £6.95-£17.95 Puddings £4.95
However, a very rare exception to that pattern came when I reviewed Locanda de Gusti a little over three years ago, when the restaurant was at the bottom of Broughton Street, in what used to be the old Lost Sock Diner.
Not that I was any less forthright than I should have been; indeed, the problem was that I felt I had a duty to give it both barrels because the meal was terrible, despite the fact that I knew the chef-patron to be one of the most gifted Italian cooks in Edinburgh. It wasn’t just the meal which left a bad taste in my mouth.
The circle was squared when we later found out that the chef, Rosario Sartore, hadn’t been working in the kitchen on the night in question. He had been in the restaurant, though we hadn’t recognised him, because a combination of stress and a new healthy-eating regime had seen the previously rotund chef shed six-and-a-half stone since I’d last been in his presence. He had also become a semi-detached owner, working as a celebrity chef in the Middle East. It can be a brutal, unforgiving game, this restaurateering lark.
So it was with a mixture of trepidation that I decided to bite the bullet and visit what was effectively a new restaurant, only with the same name. That was presumably done to keep the two AA rosettes, but in many ways such fripperies don’t really matter: we knew that Sartore was back in the kitchen, and that the place had moved back to his old stomping ground on Dalry Road next to what was once Sartore’s fantastic La Partenope. Passing the other day, it had been obvious that a lot of work was being done to turn the old Good Seed Bistro into Locanda de Gusti, so in every sense we felt that there was at least a fighting chance that the old Sartore, the passionate Neapolitan whose food once oozed Italian charm, would be in situ and that the place might soon reverberate to the sound of noisy Italian chatter, as La Partenope once did.
We were certainly right about the insides of the place, which has been transformed from a rather dark and drab decor into a bright, couthy, trattoria-style interior that stays just the right side of kitsch. Yet in many ways that’s what we wanted: part of Sartore’s schtick has always been that his restaurants, unlike so many other Italian establishments, are resolutely authentic, and there’s no denying that Locanda de Gusti has the feel of a genuine Neapolitan restaurant.
It was no surprise, therefore, when we failed to locate lasagne or spag bol on the menu, although there is a small selection of pizzas. Generally, though, the menu looked close to the offering of old, with the huge proviso that Sartore’s rebirth as a healthy and slimline soul means that all of the dishes – even the pizzas – are gluten-free.
I decided to start with the gatto, a potato cake with Italian pork sausage, bitter broccoli and provolone piccante cheese which is reminiscent of pizza rustica or casatiello, two other Neapolitan classics. This is a classic, French-inspired Neapolitan staple, with its thick diced, almost rosti-style potato topping, and sausages underneath, all held together with cheese and eggs. This was excellent comfort food perfectly suited to the average Edinburgh evening.
Bea started with the mixed seafood sautéed with white wine and crostino, and was amazed at the size of her portion and its variety. Langoustine, calamari, squid, clams, mussels, scallop and prawns were all crammed into a large bowl alongside crostini and sun-dried tomato. Marvellous.
Our first quibble came with Bea’s reaction to her spaghetti with olive oil, garlic and a kiss of chilli, which along with spaghetti vongole was basically what she lived off for three months when doing a course in Italy as a teenager. If she felt it was a bit under-seasoned, I’d take it with a slight pinch of salt: her memories of the dish her landlord used to make may be awry, and in any case, what Vindaloo Girl thinks is sensible seasoning with chilli doesn’t necessarily correspond to everyone else’s standards.
My pasta course was better, but still not perfect, the texture of my gnocchetti (small gnocchi) being a little on the flaccid side, although a beautifully light yet creamy sauce of courgette, augmented by courgettes flowers, dragged this dish over the start line.
Our main courses were back on the money, however, Bea’s slow-cooked guinea fowl coming with a gorgeously rich sauce of red wine with grapes, a dab of sweet Marsala wine and yards of thyme. My huge sea bass off the specials menu was roasted to perfection and served with slightly-too-bitter broccoli, ricotta cheese, cherry tomatoes and half a lemon in a Neapolitan dish that I’ve never had before but would certainly try again. I’m not sure I can say the same about either of the accompanying side dishes, although to be fair we were flagging badly by now under the sheer weight of grub – potato cake with cheese and cream, and sweet chillies with Vesuvio tomatoes and basil is pretty heavy fodder,
We rounded off with two puddings, neither of which totally hit the spot. Bea’s creme catalan – basically a Spanish crème brulée – was a sickly, slushy mess, while the pastry on my sfogliatelle, a croissant-shaped puff pastry filled with lemon-infused cream and topped with molten chocolate, was just a little too hard for my taste.
All in all, however, there are encouraging signs that Signor Sartore has rediscovered his mojo. Locanda de Gusti has recovered a bit of its swagger, the authenticity is palpable, as is the down-home friendly service courtesy of a student from Moscow, while the prices are commendably keen. At last, the not-so-big man is back.
Locanda de Gusti, 102 Dalry Road, Edinburgh EH11 2DW
(0131-346 8800, www.locandadegusti.com)