This post originally featured on The Culture Vulture blog.
“Do you ever think of anything but food?” If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked that, I’d be, well, you know the score. We’ve all got to eat, but like many of you, my relationship with food runs far deeper than relying on it for mere sustenance. I daydream of recipes, doodle market shopping lists and my bedtime reading is cookery books. I’ve even been known to spend whole Sundays in bed, watching cookery programme after cookery programme. Those Sundays ROCKED. Obsessed? Maybe. But life’s too short for bland, uninspiring food, and I’ve made my life a perpetual quest to discover food that’s anything but.
So why am I telling you this Leeds? Why should you care? Well, because you fuelled this obsession.You understand the importance of damn good food, and since I moved here nine years ago, you’ve been the catalyst for my food evolution. As a student, you showed me that takeaways didn’t have to be boring and tasteless, and lo, I became a convert to the gospel of Pitza Cano. Oh how I loved that place. Life beyond Uni got even more interesting as you introduced me to Kirkgate Market, our enormous, Victorian indoor market that houses ingredients I didn’t even know existed. I fell in love with cooking there and then, and no home-cooked feast could now be complete without calling upon the market’s pantry for ingredients. And if that wasn’t enough, you showed me a different side yet again when I lived and worked in the city, a side full of independent emporiums of fine food and drink, all with that elusive ‘something special’.
I’ve always sang Leeds’ foodie praises, but in the last few years, things have really stepped up a notch. There’s been vast changes-a-brewing in the food and drink industry for a while now, changes that challenge the traditional notion of the three-course restaurant meal. From supper clubs and pop-up restaurants, to cheese clubs and ginposiums, Leeds has unreservedly embraced these changes, housing a growing raft of exhilarating experiences that vie for the hungry attentions of food-obsessives like me (and probably you, if you’ve read this far…)
Experiences like Gusto Italiano. Run by Mario Olianas, an honorary son of Yorkshire hailing from Sardinia in Italy, Gusto Italiano is a monthly ‘Taste of Italy’ night at Lazy Lounge. Mario has channelled his passion for Italian cooking to prepare a heaving, home-cooked Italian buffet at Lazy Lounge each month. The premise is simple – pay just £9.99 and you can eat as much as you want, whilst socialising with friends new and old. You might learn a thing or two about Italian cuisine, and of course, there’s the well-stocked bar of Lazy Lounge, should you require a quality liquid refreshment or two to accompany your feast.
As with most new and exciting foodie experiences, my first introduction to Gusto Italiano was through the ‘food porn’ pictures taunted by the Leeds twitterverse (@wandapops, I’m looking at you). Tantalising pictures of artistic bruschetta and home-made cheese had me salivating each month, and it was only a matter of time before I succumbed to their gluttonous charms.
You’ve all heard of the concept of ‘eating with your eyes’? Yeah, that. Arriving for the first time at Gusto Italiano last month, I felt full before a morsel had even passed my lips. The familiar cosy nook next to the bar at Lazy Lounge had been transformed into a gargantuan, edible work of art. An army of bruschette lay on a mirrored platter, appearing to admire their own reflections like a team of foodie narcissists.
Mountainous piles of cheese occupied several wooden boards, accompanied by an assortment of breads and chutneys. There was a rainbow of salads, a kaleidoscope of cured meats, and all manner of pickled vegetables, pastas and other enticing nibbles.
We’d arrived at Lazy Lounge early to grab a drink first, and the temptation in the room was palpable. Everyone was loosely perched on their chairs, one eye fixed on any available time-telling device, the other scrutinising the buffet, waiting for the moment when the gorging could commence.
Worth. The. Wait. Clearly a very talented guy, Mario completely nailed the much-loved rustic simplicity that endears Italian food to so many. His two different varieties of bruschetta were divine, a flawless balance of crunch, intense flavour and presentation. The cheese, home-made by Mario himself, was absolutely sensational, my favourite being the soft, creamy magic of his Yorkshire pecorino.
I was also pleasantly surprised at how well Mario catered to vegetarians. As well as the cheese and bruschetta, there was a selection of exquisite salads, the best of which was a creamy cannellini bean salad flecked with red onions and herbs.
Mario had also spotted my veggie credentials via twitter, and when I arrived he reassured me that he’d made extra provisions for me, subsequently presenting me with two specially-prepared dishes of caprese salad and frittata! Such a nice touch.
As well as showcasing Mario’s fine Italian food, each month he collaborates with a local supplier. This month, the spotlight was on Pudsey Pickles, an independent producer of traditionally made preserves that use locally sourced ingredients. Our feast was accompanied by their varied range of chutneys, my favourite of which was the chilli jam – a sweet tomato-ey jam with a fiery kick.
And of course, being in the glorious purveyor of fine drinks that is Lazy Lounge, we weren’t short of a mind-boggling selection of stunning beverages to wash down our feast. What Tom (Lazy Lounge’s Manager and Owner) doesn’t know about wines, beers and spirits isn’t worth knowing, and I take advantage of this every time I visit to uncover the very best liquid delights. On this occasion, Tom recommended the Tanqueray Malacca and bitter lemon. A rare gin steeped in mythology and intrigue owing to its long absence from the gin market – citrus and grapefruit botanicals harmonise with juniper to provide a refreshing, citrus-led gin, which worked wonderfully with the bitter lemon that Tom recommended.
Gusto Italiano is undoubtedly a fantastic antidote to the ‘traditional restaurant experience’, of which Leeds can boast many fine examples. By no means are these sorts of experiences unique to Leeds, but it’s easy to see why they work so well here. Leeds is a city characterised by the incredible spirit of its independents, who work with, not against each other, and Gusto Italiano is the epitome of this. Mario prepares and provides the feast, as well as the opportunity for suppliers like Pudsey Pickles to showcase their wares, whilst Lazy Lounge provides the space and a dazzling array of drinks to accompany the food.
There are mutually beneficial partnerships like this all over the city, and long may they reign. And the thing that makes them so successful? The people. Mario, Tom and the Pudsey Pickles team brim with passion for what they do and they really know their stuff, collectively delivering a new way of experiencing food that educates, brings people together and inspires. That sort of passion and ethos is completely infectious, and you can’t help but want to be a part of it. The next Gusto Italiano takes place on 15 August, and I strongly suggest you’re there. I know I will be.