Simon Richardson finds a beating Italian heart at the centre of Meanwood
Mixing beer and wine will do it more often than not, but if I want to absolutely guarantee myself a hangover, I’ll eat a pizza. Something about that delicious combination of carbs, oil, cheese and tomato never fails to make me feel absolutely horrific the next day - not that it in any way stops me from singlehandedly trying to prop up the Italian economy.
CULTO, however, claim that their Pizza Nera (black pizza base) 'facilitates the normal function of the intestines'. I’m reminded of the old joke: 'Will I be able to play the violin again? Yes?! That’s amazing! I never could before…' Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained, eh?
'The waiting staff are so Italian that I struggle to understand what’s going on'
CULTO has gained something of a… er… fanatical group following in just a short space of time. In fact, they’ve backed up their nomination for 'best newcomer' at the finals of the Italian awards in 2017 with three nominations this year, as well as one for England’s favourite Italian business.
It would be impressive enough just to be the best Italian business in Meanwood though, with the amount of choice the suburb has to offer. We arrive at 8pm on a Thursday to find it buzzing, so we squeeze in on the last remaining outdoor table. The whole atmosphere is excitingly chaotic – it’s got a proper local Italian feel to it. In fact, the waiting staff are so Italian that I struggle to understand what’s going on.
CULTO started off as a takeaway, so when you first walk in, you’re surrounded by pizza boxes and unless you’ve been before, it’s difficult to know what to do. Eventually, once we’ve been seated, we’re told that it’s an order-at-the-counter job and everything settles down a bit. Our waiter is genuinely excited that we haven’t been before and tells us that we’ll see what the fuss is about. The whole thing is as in-your-face authentic as anything you’d get in a proper Italian town (not Rome or Milan), so we decide to go classic “Brits eat Italian”.
I immediately come over all Hannibal Lecter and order the liver (£6.95) with a really nice chianti (£31) – although we skip the fava beans. The liver is rich and creamy, served with some pretty-looking crusty bread made with black swirls. Perhaps it’s the same vegetable charcoal that goes in the black pizza base?
My partner has cheese and ham arancini (£5.10) which are belt-looseningly tasty, a perfect mix of outer crunch and inner goo. Thank God for thin Italian bases or I’d struggle to get through half a main.
My Diavola pizza (£9.95) is striking in its blackness, but as crispy and light as you would expect from a traditional base, with mild spice generated from the nduja sausage and a generous drizzle of oil. It’s not too heavy on the cheese, neither is it too thick or stodgy – it’s pretty much perfect, in fact.
The other main, carbonara (£7.95), is creamy and filling for sure, but lacking a bit on the egg front. The portions are generous, the prices excellent and the service has certainly been with a smile and just a hint of mockery. We’re very impressed so far.
The desserts, though, are a bit of a let-down. The tiramisu (£3.95) is completely devoid of that addictive boozy taste and served on a chocolate sauce base so sweet my teeth almost fall out as I try to eat it. The cannoli (£4.45) is perfect on the outside – crispy rather than chewy, but the inner is far too sweet again, and unnecessarily adorned with chocolate drops.
There’s just enough time for another light-hearted chat with the entertaining serving staff and the customary free shot of limoncello before we roll home. I note later that I’ve managed to put on well over a kilo from a single restaurant visit. Surely that warrants an extra point on its own?
CULTO has got a lot of competition in the immediate vicinity and in Leeds as a whole, but it certainly stands up, and it’s not hard to see why they’re popular with locals - or awarding bodies. In fact, take the desserts away and there wasn’t much to fault at all – certainly not in terms of service and atmosphere, which were good enough on their own to make me want to visit again.
Of course, like virtually everywhere else in Leeds, they don’t deliver to Bramley. But return I will, especially since the pizza didn’t give me a hangover.
97 Stainbeck Rd, Leeds LS7 2PR. Tel: 0113 345 4434.
All scored reviews are unannounced, impartial, paid for by Confidential and completely independent of any commercial relationship. Venues are rated against the best examples of their type: 1-5: saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9: Netflix and chill, 10-11: if you're passing, 12-13: good, 14-15: very good, 16-17: excellent, 18-19: pure class, 20: cooked by God him/herself.
Liver 8; Arancini 9; Diavola pizza 9; Carbonara 8; Tiramisu 4.5; Cannoli 5.5
Light-hearted interaction and genuine conversation with pleasant, attentive staff
Buzzing - the whole thing oozes authenticity