This post was originally published on The Culture Vulture blog.
“We’re in it to enjoy ourselves” declares Gip Dammone. To which his brother, John Dammone, immediately adds: “And be proud”. It’s been several days since I met the Dammone brothers at their restaurant, Salvo’s, but their words have lingered. Two simple but poignant declarations, they epitomised the very essence of what makes Leeds’ independent restaurants, like Salvo’s, so utterly fantastic.
Salvo’s is a Leeds legend. A small, family run restaurant in the student hub of Headingley, it’s spoken about throughout Leeds, and beyond, with utmost respect and reverence. We’re in an age where restaurants must fight harder than ever before for our business, where chefs need to inject even more passion and creativity into their dishes, where waiters and waitresses must wait even harder. Reputations can be built and lost by just one customer’s experience. But Salvo’s reputation never falters. After meeting its owners Gip and John, the sons of founder, Salvatore, it’s no surprise. Gip and John’s genuine passion, dedication and commitment to providing the very best experience for their loyal customers was truly inspiring. This doesn’t mean huge price tags or fussy plates reeking of ‘value added pretention’, as Gip ingeniously phrased it. No, it’s much simpler than that. Quality ingredients, a carefully thought-out menu, passion and pride. No more and no less.
I was invited to Salvo’s along with five other Leeds’ food bloggers for an evening sampling the new menu. This wasn’t your usual tasting evening of mini morsels and bottomless glasses of wine on fly-by silver platters. Warm and welcoming, it was an invitation to experience the real Italy that runs through Salvo’s blood, from the wonderful food and wine to the hospitable and generous company. Extending this invitation so charitably to us were Gip and John, who sat with us around an oval table in the centre of the restaurant, encouraging everyone to help themselves to the tantalising dishes that kept appearing at the heart of the table. Relaxed, sincere and very enjoyable, the evening gave us a true taste of the Salvo’s experience, as well as a chance to hear from Gip and John about what Salvo’s means to them.
An ode to mozzarella
To start, Salvo’s paid homage to that most Italian of ingredients – mozzarella – with two simple but stunning dishes. The Salad of D.O.P Mozzarella Di Bufala with Italian Vine Tomatoes was a celebratory dish, belying its deceptively simple appearance to showcase the enormous skill and craftsmanship poured into the cultivation of such perfect ingredients. The milky white mozzarella balls were the perfect partner to the juicy, rich tomatoes which tasted like pure sunshine – a million times better than the pale and solid tomatoes found languishing on supermarket shelves. Sprinkled with salty samphire and punchy basil, it’s hard to imagine four ingredients working better together.
This was served alongside another mozzarella dish, the much more unusual Smoked Mozzarella from Cilento with Campania Aubergines. It was my first dalliance with smoked mozzarella and it was a REVELATION. Intensely imbued with a smouldering depth of flavour, it conjured happy memories of summer campfires and family barbecues. The mozzarella was a wonderful match to the chargrilled aubergine, whilst providing the necessary contrast to the saccharine sweet red pepper.
Perfect pizza and pasta
Next up was a pizza that may well be a contender for one of the most delicious pizzas EVER. Bold, I know, but the Notte Bianche Pizza had the goods to back it up. We’re talking salty feta, pungent gorgonzola, fresh chives and the rich, decadent infusion of truffle, all resting elegantly on a perfect base of thin, doughy JOY. Divine.
From pizza to pasta. Refreshingly, Gip and John proudly introduced their pasta dishes as being dried, not fresh. There can be a lot of snobbery about fresh vs dry pasta, but why? When it’s handmade, often by ‘little Italian grannies’ according to Gip, there can be no question about quality. We tasted Pasta a la Norma – a classic Sicilian pasta dish with dried strozzapreti pasta and aubergines. I confess to helping myself to serving after serving of this – the combination of silky aubergine, garlicky tomato sauce and lashings of salty cheese was completely irresistible! Equally delicious was the Linguine con pomodoro with fresh Scottish mussels – I gave the mussels a miss but I loved the stripped-back freshness of the sauce.
I was beginning to feel like surrendering, but I couldn’t overlook the Stuffed and Baked Vegetables from Milan Market – round zucchini with wild mushroom stuffing, peppers with pea risotto, artichoke heart with ricotta and parmesan and finally, aubergine with a baba ghanoush filling. A thoughtful creation that focused on bringing the very best out of every ingredient, it was a far-cry from the usual ‘mushroom risottos’ or ‘spinach and ricotta pastas’ that sit uncreatively on the vegetarian section of so many ‘Italian’ restaurants. Vegetarians are certainly no second class citizens in Salvo’s.
There were plenty of meat and seafood dishes to tempt the palates of the carnivores too, but for once my vegetarianism was a blessing – I could not have eaten any more if I’d tried!
A local restaurant
The ‘dining out’ market is saturated with Italian restaurants, many of which are merely ‘theme restaurants’ that take the Italian name in vain. Not Salvo’s. Family-run by proud and passionate Italians, Salvo’s pays homage to its heritage by using fresh Italian ingredients where possible to create beautiful and authentic Italian dishes. But it’s a local restaurant too, and a beloved cornerstone of the community of Headingley and Leeds. “Would you ever move to the City Centre?”, someone asked as we ate. Gip’s reply said it all. “Why would we?”. And as we mused this, there wasn’t one of us that could offer a valid reason for doing so. Gip, John and the Salvo’s team’s enjoyment of their jobs was clear to see, and this enjoyment is just as important an ingredient to the Salvo’s experience as its D.O.P Mozzarella di Bufala. It’s the reason that Salvo’s always has a packed restaurant and a queue at its door, so why risk that by expanding or moving?
Much more than just an evening of fabulous food and wine, Salvo’s inspired me, reminding me of my recent chat with The Sunshine Bakery’s Dave. “Cafés and restaurants should be little havens, with character, atmosphere and a theme that creates a space where people can relax, forgetting all about their busy lives”, Dave told me. These havens are created by the people behind them, and Gip, John and the rest of the team should be proud of the wonderful haven they have created in Salvo’s. If you haven’t yet visited, go immediately and you’ll see what I mean.