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.
Old school Italian
Review published on 17/02/2014 © Sunday Herald
I will not bore you with the pizza chronicles: of how pizza dough is handmade in my house, by Mr Ham-fisted, most every week. How my kids will always loyally swear its the best theyve ever tasted, Dad, though we all know its not really. Or of making pizza in Collemacchia, Italy, in the wood-fired oven and in the taverna, now owned by my sister, where the pizzas are thin like water biscuits and crisp and never drowned in toppings. Or of judging the world pizza championships in Las Vegas. I ate, the Italians won, of course.
I wont mention tasting what is reputed to be the worlds best at Lantica Pizzeria da Michele on Via Cesare Sersale in Napoli where they only do two types and both of them seemed, ahem, slightly burnt. Or the Swedish sourdough pizza and the French wood-fired pizza already eaten in Scotland this year. More on the latter later aka another day. Or even my mums pizzas in that unique coal fired oven that turned literally white hot in The Lodge in Oban back in the day which were, honest injun, the best. Ever.
Lets just say we like pizza. Enough to have driven all the way through to Edinburgh from Glasgow tonight for some pulled from, and what else, a wood fired oven. The wood is for the heat by the way, not as some mistakenly believe for flavour.
Anyway, this oven lingers not far from the front door of la taverna throwing out golden warmth and joy as we squeeze by it and see three chefs slapping and shaping pizzas. Atmospheric? Si. Even though La Favorita seems a rabbit warren of tables at different levels and styles from different eras with customers tucked cosily into corners here, there and everywhere. It hustles and it bustles.
Italian accented waiters manage to head by in one direction whilst talking in another and at the same time eye-ball checking that everything is OK with us in a third direction. It is. Now, a brief word on the menu of Edinburgh old school Italian restaurants of which this seems to be one. Apart from the usual suspects there are chips with truffle we tried them and theyre nothing special; arancini riso rice balls stuffed with melting cheese but rolled huge and cooked so hard they have cracked unattractively which doesnt actually spoil the flavour as much as the looks, and an antipasto served on a board in such heaped quantities fritatta, courgettes, mozzarella, prosciutto, chickpeas dip, pecorino, taleggio, yadayada that three times I check the menu to find out how much this is going to sting us.
Its £13, Debs says again, and the waitress, overhearing this, reveals that because we booked on the internet tonight in January everything on the menu is half price. Now thats aggressive pricing, with the knock-on effect that it makes the pizzas we ordered around £5 each. They are certainly large and bubbled attractively on the edges incidentally I dont agree with this but while in Vegas I was advised that a perfect pizza should have no air bubbles and are very thin.
Like in any decent pizzeria in Italy there are plenty of pizze bianche or without sauce versions to choose from. The crudo e fichi comes with parma ham, fresh figs, and stracchino. The cinque formaggi with taleggio, pecorino, emmental, mozzarella, Gorgonzola and tomato sugo.
Are these the best pizzas in Scotland? Is this as the website suggests they are trying to be the best pizzeria in Britain? I dunno about either of the above but they are certainly very good, thin pizzas with perfectly fired and almost crisp bases. Decent flavour from the dough too.
If, as happened with both of them, the centres become a gooey mess long before weve got anywhere near to finishing them then thats probably more to do with the wetness of the toppings than any fault with the process.
Worth the trip from Glasgow then? Uh-huh.