There are some restaurants that exist as four walls surrounding a hob and some chairs, where people might or might not decide to go and eat their tea - and that’s a perfectly fine aspiration. Others, though, become something more - an institution, or an event, or a destination. Salvo’s, in my mind, is something of a culinary rite of passage.
Expect a trendy Cicchetti restaurant where rustic tumblers of Barolo wash down regional takes on octopus, and you’ll be disappointed...on the other hand, it’s not a four-foot-tall pepper mill, cream-in-the-carbonara type place either
There are a few of these - your first date in a restaurant, probably a Frankie & Benny’s, probably doused in enough Davidoff Cool Water to qualify as a combustion hazard. Convincing yourself that you actually like coriander, and you’re not just garnishing with it because it looks nice. Hosting a dinner party where the food isn’t a mere sideshow to the main event of getting off you box in your dining room with seven mates.
Thing is, though, rites of passage almost never live up to expectations. Just ask anybody who remembers going to their high school prom, or losing their virginity, or reading On The Road, and how disheartened they were to realise it’s just four beatniks in a car, smoking drugs and reciting bad poetry (and don’t even get me started on proms or that Kerouac book...)
AA Rosettes, The Good Food Guide and Gordon Ramsay himself have heightened expectations for Salvo's by waxing hyperbolic about it during the past ten years of its forty-year stint - could it possibly deliver? Well, it depends what you’re anticipating.
Expect a trendy cicchetti restaurant where rustic tumblers of Barolo wash down regional takes on octopus, and you’ll be disappointed (They do offer that experience at weekly regional dinners at their Salumeria, a few doors down) - on the other hand, it’s not a four-foot-tall pepper mill, cream-in-the-carbonara type place either.
Instead, it’s somewhere in the middle - there’s a cosy but lively dining room, catering to everything from intimate dates to extended family gatherings, classic dishes in portion sizes that’d make Nonna look tight-fisted, and a few tricks up its sleeve to boot (Get it? Because Italy’s shaped like a boot! Oh for fff-- I’m wasted on you lot...)
Trick one: A cocktail menu including several interpretations of Negroni, the undisputed greatest cocktail ever mixed. The Botanico version (£6.95) was strong, bitter, herbal, and good enough that I was willing to forgive the fact it arrived a full five minutes after the Testarossa (£7.50) - a take on the amaretto sour that tastes every bit as good as Lush body lotion smells - that we ordered at the same time.
Completely by chance, the herbal properties complimented my lamb breast starter (part of the weekend menu, £15.95 for two courses) - two slices of umami swiss roll; catherine wheels of belly-fat and flesh tasting its utmost lambiest, spiralling hypnotically and rendered to near melting point. Trick two. Searing each slice in the pan would’ve been preferable to the breadcrumb treatment it received, but hey ho.
Across the table was much bigger deep-fried disappointment. Whitebait (£5.95) lounged on the plate as soggy as they would’ve been while alive and swimming about the ocean; n’duja mayonnaise accompanies the mini fish, and is similarly toothless and lacking in bite.
Another duffer is a supposedly turbo-charged garlic bread from the specials list (£7.50) - it’s 150% more expensive than the regular garlic bread, but all that extra four-fifty gets you is a couple of supermarket-quality tomatoes and marinated anchovies. Not worth straying off the a la carte for.
Perhaps a Sunday afternoon in November isn’t peak time for quality produce - the linguine seemed a little rigid and lifeless, but the intensity of flavour clinging onto each tangled forkful of the pasta meant we forgave it. Linguine con Frutti di Mare (£13) bursts with rich, smoky tomato, and conceals fat, milky-sweet prawns; the crab, brown butter, chilli and spring onion version (part of the weekend menu, £15.95 for two courses) is like inhaling the entire Whitby seafront in one deep breath.
I’m not sure the place still has a rightful claim to being the Best Neighbourhood Italian restaurant, as it was awarded by The F Word in 2009. Not that it matters, Ramsay’s too busy verbally abusing Americans to come back any time soon. As far as rites of passage go though, losing my Salvo’s virginity lives up to expectations better than most - and it probably won’t take three years to do this one again…
Salvo's, 115 & 107 Otley Road, Headingley LS6 3PX
Food: 7/10 - Lamb Breast 8, Whitebait 5, Garlic Bread with Tomato & Anchovy 5, Linguine al Granchio 7.5, Linguine con Frutti di Mare 8.5
Service: 2.5/5 - Pleasant but disjointed
Atmosphere: 4.5/5 - Good vibes all round