The Leith Glutton
Silenced by the brilliance...
Pasta! Pasta! My kingdom for a plate of penne, as Richard III might have roared had his hunger been for nourishment rather than power, and his culinary horizon just a little wider. There is little that a bowl of the extruded stuff, prepared well, doesn’t fix.
Our little globe goes mad for the stuff. Italy leads the per-capita consumption rankings, unsurprisingly, with Venezuela, Tunisia and Iran giving hot chase. Every third bag of western-style pasta is sold in China. The only notable pasta hole, other than the one in the spaghetti hoop, is south of the Sahara and that may be as much about social justice as food preferences.
Pasta operates on a wide spectrum. Fresh and dry; boiled or baked; stuffed, sauced or both; lunch or dinner; formed with egg or water. The southern, hard wheats of Sicily contrast with the softer grain from the northern Po valley. The only constants in pasta are salt and end-user satisfaction.
But in this country, even end-user satisfaction is not guaranteed. Watery British bolognese is a far cry from anything served in Bologna. Stuffed supermarket pasta has a suspiciously longer shelf-live than some nuclear waste. Macaroni cheese has its place, but the addition or kale or peas is a sufficiently controversial perversion to be cited in the divorce courts as grounds for irreconcilable differences.
With a little creativity, good pasta shines. Rachel Roddy’s recent book, The A-Z of Pasta shows we know nothing. She revels in the art of simplicity with recipes of triumphant wonder, all very do-able. Carbonara becomes simple. There are things with orange zest and fish. Roddy’s book should be on every shelf, and I am sure those nice people at Toppings book shop at the top of Leith Walk will find you a copy for a very reasonable consideration.
Edinburgh, with its seam of Italian immigration, has a fine pasta history. Many will remember Nonna’s Kitchen in Morningside, which sadly closed during the pandemic. It was the successor to the Patio in Hanover Street opened by Carmela and Mimmo Stornaiuolo in 1968. Valvona & Crolla now offer very decent fresh pasta to go. A rival branch of the Contini family cooks well at the converted bank on 103 George Street.
Wild Maremma - The Artisan Pasta Maker, was founded by Milena Burattelli who bases herself at Granton. At weekends, she wheels boxes of her fresh stuff to the Leith and Stockbridge markets. It’s really good. There is often semi-dried pappardelle and linguine to mix with your own sauce. Burrata and njuda – the proper, fiery hot stuff – oozes out of filled ravioli. Her ricotta and walnut parcels make happy days. The large spinach cannelloni are best when fried. This glutton has written before, and favourably, about Mistral. It’s an achingly hipster wine bar at the interesting end of Bonnington Road. It’s the kind of place where everyone is younger than you but they are kind enough not to notice. Wines by the glass are interesting and often new to me.
Right now, Mistral are hosting occasional pop-ups with Aemilia in Portobello. Aemilia is a tiny shop occupying the old Bross Bagels premises on the high street. There are just two seats, so Giada and Kip’s focus is on selling fresh pasta to go. It is extraordinarily good. This is much more refined than Wild Maremma, and attracting serious reviews. The Times christen them ‘pasta geniuses’, with considerable justification.
Our £30, three course dinner, started with exceptional focaccia. Serious, chewy, tasty stuff, with a refined olive oil and excellent prosciutto. Cappelletti were stuffed with walnuts and gorgonzola, oozing with butter and cheese. Three fried sage leaves sat proud a-top. All pasta should be al dente – but with thirty seconds more in the pan this dish would have achieved perfection. As it was, we swooned and gulped, praising the geniuses that have chosen this little part of the world to run their business.
Dessert was even better: a baked Basque cheesecake. The top was, as it should be, bitter and dark from a hot oven, the cake squidgy and flavoursome, with a side ‘spaghetti’ of pickled rhubarb. This was the best restaurant dessert I have eaten all year, and then some. Absolute genius. Wine by the glass, from about £6.
Days later, we wander along to the shop and stock up. Truffle and ricotta tortelli in a stylish paper box. Boiled for minutes, they glide around a bowl of hot butter. We are mesmerised by the aroma, and silenced by the brilliance. This is, truly, food perfection. Nothing could be improved. Spinach ravioli gleam in a rich tomato sauce, and they are delicious too. And then, because no-one can have too much of anything this good, we polish off another slice of That Basque Cheesecake. I’m moving to Portobello. ■
186 Portobello High Street
Open Thu-Sun, 10am-3pm.
Pop-up tickets, Mistral
10 Bonnington Road
Cappelletti, walnuts and gorgonzola