In the centre of Edinburgh you’ll find Italian restaurants all over the place. They’ll serve you what you’d expect: pizza, pasta and cheesy delights. I’m not a fan of this type of restaurant. Firstly, a lot of the food is lazy and uninteresting, and secondly, I can make a lot of it at home. Luckily, there are Italian restaurants that stand out. Al Dente, on Easter Road, is one such restaurant.
Al Dente has been hit listed by the List’s Eating and Drinking Guide several years, recently won a Best Italian Restaurant Award and has a dedicated following both locally and further afield. I’d heard a lot of good about it before I visited for the first time and am delighted to say that it was just as good as I had been lead to believe.
I visited Al Dente on a relatively quiet mid-week evening. Three couples and one gentleman on his own were contentedly tucking in to their first courses when we sat down. A few more diners came in while we were there and service was unhurried but attentive. The restaurant is intimate and relaxing. The room is small and unpretentious, with the feel of a traditional trattoria, but the food is ambitious and delicious. The menu changes with the season and showcases dishes from different areas of Italy. You won’t find pizza here, nor a long list of standard pastas. Instead you’ll find interesting and seasonal dishes. You’ll also find a warm welcome and great service. Graziano Spano, the owner, was very attentive to all his guests and knew when to have a chat and when to leave a table alone. Al Dente is my favourite type of neighbourhood restaurant: welcoming and friendly with an interesting and frequently changed menu.
We settled in with olives and bread, sipping a light and hearty Valpolicella and discreetly checking out what everyone else was eating while perusing the menu. It helped me chose my starter: faggotini, a pork and mushroom dumpling wrapped in bright green and crispy cabbage. It was miles away from the cabbage dolmi that I grew up on – grey, stodgy creations wrapped in tired, often slightly burned, white cabbage leaves and served with a cream-based gravy and lingonberry jam*. The faggotini was crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. The flavours were well balanced and the pork went really well with the delicate chickpea purée it was served with. C. had the scamorza pie with fennel au gratin. It was lovely and C. was particularly impressed with the mixture of cooked and fresh vegetables that gave the dish an interesting texture as well as a great flavour.
For the main, I had a roulade of grilled sword fish stuffed with pine nuts, breadcrumbs, lemon and raisins. It was served with a timbale of barley cooked with peppers, capers and anchovies. The barley side turned out to be cooked just like a risotto and is called orzotto in the region of Italy where it is traditionally made. It had good flavour and great chew. The fish tasted of the sea and had great texture. C. had the sformato di radicchio e funghi, layers of pasta and grilled radicchio and mushrooms with bechamel and mozzarella. It was a fabulous dish: rich, creamy and flavourful.
When it came to desert, both C. and I departed from our normal habits. We considered cheese, and the poached pear, but were both seduced by the comforting gorgeousness of cream and chocolate. My chocolate profiteroles were smothered in chocolate sauce and bursting with cream. C’s tiramisu was a cloud of mascarpone cream surrounding delicate coffee-flavoured lady’s fingers.
After finishing with a refreshingly acidic espresso, balanced by a sweet amaretto, we wondered out into the chill evening with warm hearts and full bellies. We’re already planning when to return. Graziano runs themed evenings every now and again, with a regional menu, each dish paired with a wine, as well as regional music and information. It sounds like great fun and a tasty way to learn more about Italy and her regions.
* Everything was served with lingonberry jam when I grew up.