La Favorita325-321 Leith Walk,
0131 554 2430
£ – inexpensive
££ – mid-price
£££ – expensive
££££ – very expensive
Review published on 03/08/2009 © Sunday Herald
I had almost stopped visiting neighbourhood Italian restaurants in Scotland because the food was in a time warp. That familiar roll-call of pizza, pasta, steak and tiramisu seemed totemic of a tired-out formula with second-rate execution. It isnt like Italian food you get in Italy but what Antonio Carluccio refers to as Britalian, a cut-and-paste hybrid.
In Britain there are, of course, chefs like Carluccio and Giorgio Locatelli and food writers such as Anna del Conte who have taught the middle classes that Italian food is diverse and highly regional, that there is a difference, for example, between the cucina of Sardinia and that of Lombardy.
A minority also understands that a typical Italian meal is made up of a series of relatively small dishes. But for most people and most restaurateurs Italian food is one vaguely Mediterranean, tomato and basil-dominated whole, elements of which can be shoehorned into the British meal structure.
Thanks to the Britalian tradition, we have clichés such as a pile of rocket and dribbles of reduced balsamic vinegar and pesto with everything and not just in Italian restaurants either. Starchy dishes such a risotto and pasta have been super-sized and become stodgy main courses.
Meanwhile, Italys rich array of vegetable-based dishes have been studiously ignored. And there has been the strong sense of the dead hand of an old order, of generations of older Scottish-Italians who dont aspire to being more authentic or using better-sourced ingredients because what they do has proven highly profitable.
I was sceptical when some friends recommended La Favorita on Leith Walk in Edinburgh. It used to be the venerable Caprice and was distinguished by its wood-fired oven which produced rather good pizza but was otherwise undistinguished. I also learned that La Favorita was using the inspiringly authentic artisan Italian cheeses now being made in East Lothian by CAOS, another promising sign. Most restaurateurs can get away with serving workaday mozzarella and few will spot the difference. This attention to sourcing suggests an aspiration to do better.
The place has been transformed from the old Caprice I remembered. Smooth surfaces, smart lighting and mirrors make it feel about twice the size it once did. A diligent front-of-house team delivers the sort of all-seeing, perceptive service you get in smart establishments in Italy. The wine list is a treasure trove of mainly Italian bottles, usefully grouped under headings such as powerful and bold with strong representation from well-known regions like Tuscany and less encountered ones such as Campania and Piemonte. They are most reasonably priced for their quality, and if you trade up to a bottle in the £25-£30 bracket, you can enjoy pleasures such as fine Barolo for little more than the retail price.
Who wouldnt like the irreproachable arancini, a risotto mix with mozzarella and/or meat ragu fried in crunchy breadcrumbs? And what a treat to have a mini-aubergine parmigiana in which the aubergine is properly softened in oil and stacked on marvellously milky mozzarella in a fresh and mellow tomato sauce that is much, much more than some watered-down passata from a catering-sized Tetrapak.
The pizzas are great. Thin, pliable, blistered with air bubbles and touched by the whisper of the logs and residual heat of porous tiles, they restore ones faith in the pizza category. Our topping had the lovely yielding mozzarella with radicchio, wild mushrooms and lemon-marinated bresaola (air-dried cured beef) with just a hint of truffle oil. One La Favorita pizza is easily enough for two normal appetites.
Likewise starter portions of pastas are generous, and they are the real deal too. Bouncy bucatini alla Norma, anointed in a tomato, aubergine and chilli sauce moderated by creamy fresh ricotta and smoked scamorza, managed to be fresh and light, yet deeply satisfying. Egg-rich papparadelle with its rich ragu of roughly minced wild boar was simultaneously authentically rustic and luxurious.
Desserts ? Well, even restaurants in Italy rarely excel in this department. Ice cream, pannacotta and so on. Who cares? What goes before steals the show all on its own.