It was a surprisingly cold evening last Wednesday as I headed from my mum’s place where I was staying on the bus to Wakefield. Being so used to London with the pollution and numerous high-rise buildings trapping the heat in it came to a shock to the system as I stopped at a quiet bus stop waiting for one to arrive. The evening reminded rather of an evening at the seaside at this time of year and I was wishing for my winter coat several hundred miles away.
Eventually a bus arrived, I had managed to forget the face that you only get one every 30 minutes in The North (and people wonder why I say it is grim up north), and I was on my way to town. I was fairly dubious about the restaurant my mum had suggested as taking a look on Google Maps it looked a little forced in under a rather run down set of flats but after a bus trip and another short walk I was pleasantly surprised to see the exterior had been done up to look more modern, welcoming and clean.
Despite the restaurant being fairly quiet, as you might expect on a Wednesday at 7pm after several Bank Holidays, it was a comfortable temperature that made removing jackets more than just a possibility and for people near the radiators no doubt a necessity but also a welcome relief after such a bitter breeze swept through the streets.
I was sitting facing the wall so was able to admire the hand-painted landscapes on the wall that had clearly been imagined up by a talented individual as the way they looked to be coming off the wall with the depth of shadows and vibrancy of colour made them look at a distance as if they were constructed of multiple layers or a piece of artwork placed in a frame. They made for a welcome change to the usual pieces of artwork encountered in Italian restaurants, especially ones that seem to specialise in seafood, and really helped to give a sense of personality and life to the restaurant instead of it feeling like a knock-off wannabe chain that are found on pretty much every corner of London.
There were several more bizarre items dotted around on the walls and ceiling of the restaurant though that really screamed a lack of inspiration or desire to impress the diners having to sit facing them. The bottom of the walls had that terrible panelling that wanted to give the impression of being old and rustic but instead just looks half-finished despite every frequent visitor to an eating establishment knowing it costs them more to give it that shabby chic look; it is a trend I will be more than delighted for restaurants to choose to leave behind and for them to instead focus on providing good food, good service and simple but proper décor decisions.
As if that usual tosh was not enough there was also a random ship wheel attached to the wall, alongside a couple of pieces of wooden border for somebody’s garden bath to stop a hedgehog going rogue and onto a pristinely cut lawn and a hat nailed to the wall above it. It is not clear whether diners are supposed to be thinking garden fresh, Italian beach or blustery salty sea when the colour of the wall would simply have sufficed instead of cramming it with items.
The further on in to the meal we got the more that the sun started to set and the light features made themselves increasingly present (or perhaps less avoidable) as the bottles put onto a chandelier, clearly never used for any other purpose than to go on to such a bizarre fitting, started to shine the green colour across the walls and over those beautiful paintings. The silhouettes of the bottles had been distracting enough as they made it feel like there was somebody standing over my shoulder and it was being reflected on the wall but the shimmering green only added to the distraction of the food.
Usually restaurants only aim to distract customers when the food is poor and the service is bad but in the case of Rustico‘s this is not an accurate representation as both were excellent and made for fantastic value for money.
Though what makes good service is subjective and the attentive nature of the waiters went down a lot better with me than it did for some at the table. The waiters ensured that everything was okay with the meal throughout, they brought the usual basket of bread and olives (which were pitted, hooray, and a good balance of the natural olive and a little seasoning put on them) and they ensured that wine glasses were kept topped up from the bottle that was on the table as well as knowing the kitchen stock enough to be aware that swordfish might not be an option that evening and immediately going to double check. They came across as a well meaning and loving Italian family and went to great lengths to be complimentary as well as providing the correct pronunciation and/or translation for each dish to be informative and help people feel more connected to the food and experience of eating in their beloved creation and workplace.
The attitude of the staff certainly made for a pleasant change when comparing them to Italian, or wannabe Italian, chains and to me the staff were certainly a credit to the restaurant and the experience of going for a meal out on a midweek evening. They could be heard talking to other tables with passion and happiness, all in different tones and approaches depending on the group, rather than just in a monotone voice with repeated jargon. And beyond everything else you can tell when somewhere has good food as the staff do not try to push specific dishes upon you.
I know what you are probably thinking, because if I was reading this it is exactly what would be going through my mind, so far it sounds pretty average and just a little confused given the décor and the staff but actually the food is really the thing that makes this restaurant deserve to remain and get custom. Since the introduction of Trinity Walk in Wakefield a few years ago other eateries have suffered with people flocking to that one central spot for a bite to eat either at lunchtime or in an evening rather than just around the corner. But there is a reason Rustico’s is still going and it certainly isn’t the random piece of garden border precariously hanging on the wall; it is the quality ingredients cooked to perfection.
For starter I went for a simple and fresh dish, the sort where there is nothing to hide behind, melone e gamberetti (melon and prawns). The melon was very fresh and if it had not been cut at my dish being requested it had at least being prepared right before service and stored perfectly. It was full of flavour whilst remaining juicy and had that gentle fresh bite that comes with a nicely cooled slice of thinly cut melon. The freshness counteracted the sharpness of the prawns in a marie rosė sauce with a dash of lemon juice squeezed over the top. It sounds simple and it certainly was but it was simple done well and it is always important to start a meal off on a positive note and without overfilling yourself on too many other things (I had considered the pâté della casa but figured that chicken pate and bread would be a bit too heavy at the start of a meal and I’ve learned from so many similar mistakes in the past).
My companions (I have recently decided that it is better to keep those that I eat with without names to save hassle over remember who does and does not want privacy) kept it fairly simple and selected dishes that had little room to hide and instead only room to disappoint; luckily there was no disappointment. One ordered the gamberoni marinara, a hearty portion of well-cooked chunky prawns in a garlic butter sauce, and was thankful for the bread basket still being on the table to soak up some of the full-flavoured, velvety and somehow light sauce that seen a harmony between the bitter garlic and gentle creamy and saltiness from the butter.
The other ordered the Insalata di mare, a mixed seafood salad but requested it with no squid that would have otherwise come on top tempura style, and a huge bowl of crayfish, prawns, mussels and what looked like langoustine mixed with a variety of salad leaves arrived. To look at the dish you could easily have taken it to be a main meal rather than just a starter and could easily be listed as being an option for either or as a sharing starter and given the price that made it wonderful value for money as well. To save room for the following ordered main course it was decided that some should be left so me being the person that I am took the mission to finish the rest of the crayfish, prawns and try a little of the dressing on the leaves was a must; everything was fresh and vibrant and the dressing was gentle without being too overpowering of any particular flavour to instead allow it to compliment the seafood whilst keeping the leaves fresh.
It is rare for me to step outside my comfort zone when it comes to food in an Italian restaurant because I absolutely adore risotto but one of the things I have realised since those not-so-distant days of barely being able to put a carrot on the table let alone go for a meal out is that if I am going to venture outside I should at least get something that is hassle to cook at home; for some risotto is hassle but for me it tends to be quite therapeutic and is getting less terrible each time and ultimately falls into the same category as having a lasagna in a restaurant given the usual price and quality of them versus cooking them in your own home (but that can be a story for another time).
Having said that, I did opt for a baked pasta dish that is probably on a similar level of complexity to lasagna but given I have never cooked it and probably realistically have no attempt to start now felt justified to order it, I went for the cannelloni rustico (rolled pasta pancake with lamb mince inside coated in napolenta sauce and a lashing of cheese). The sauce was vibrant, well seasoned and whilst being almost boiling hot it still had an element of freshness that helped to balance out the intensity of the never-ending stringy layer of cheese. The mince itself was lightly cooked and did not seem to have a lot of courgette mixed in with it but when everything was combined together it made for a pleasing, warming and sensible balance of flavours and textures.
My companions ordered the salmone riviera (salmon steak in a lobster sauce with prawns) and pollo alla crema (chicken in a cream, onion and white wine sauce) that came both on lengthy plates and with a plate of vegetables and potatoes to share. The potatoes looked incredibly crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, a rare treat in a restaurant these days, whilst the vegetables look fresh, crisp and cooked to the right level rather than within an inch of life. Apparently the vegetables could have been a little warmer but the rest of the dishes were delightfully tasty and decent portions of the main event. The need for balsamic on both of the plates did seem a little peculiar and did not seem to add that much to the dishes.
At this point the restaurant did seem to get a little busier and the lead waiter was busy working his way around the tables. This did allow us a time to pause and ponder if a dessert was wanted and if so what would it be or if we wanted a coffee to round the meal off but given I detest coffee I only had eyes for the desserts. The main thing I have increasingly noticed about desserts in Italian restaurants is how many are very heavy on the cream or at least some form of dairy which is really peculiar to me given the rich and heavy nature of a lot of those desserts it is not really the sort of thing you want if already heading towards being full but also all the item titles were in English rather than Italian with a translation like the rest of the menu that was a little disappointing.
After a little bit of pondering we all decided on having a dessert and I went for one of the lightest sounding of the bunch; the profiteroles even though the exact quantity was not specifically given so there was a slight risk of a mound of choux pastry being placed before me doused in chocolate and cream but luckily proportions were a lot more manageable. The pastry was light and gentle and whilst the cream inside was delightfully fresh with a mild cocoa hint it was also incredibly rich and well-whipped making it quite dense and a rather heftier than looking dessert. Compared to a lot of profiteroles though they were probably some of the better ones I have tasted and if you are more of a dessert person than a starter they should certainly be on your radar.
The other desserts selected was a vanilla cheesecake that came presented in what can only be described as a hilariously bizarre style that screamed trying too hard to make such a simple item look a little bit more interesting, a lot like the décor, but it looked well formed and not grainy whilst not having too much of an intensely thick base that would make it heavy and such a slice unable to be completed. The other was a chocolate fudge cake, served hot, with a dollop of ice cream that looked a good even bake without too dense a crumb and the layer of topping did not look too thick or too deeply rich. Both were eaten without too many comments being raised and the dishes were cleared so that can only be taken as a good sign.
Overall I would strongly recommend a visit to Rustico’s should you be in the Wakefield area one evening. They do also have a lunch menu which is a much smaller selection and includes several dishes of a more lunch-sized proportion but of course having not eaten there during that time this is not something I can recommend.
Service was attentive, the atmosphere was enjoyable with music helping to break up noise from other tables but without it being too loud and the food was delightful. My only bugbear is the bizarre combination of various décor and the confused feelings that provides compared to everything else on offer.
I would love to know what you think of Rustico’s below! Alternatively do let me know what your favourite Italian dish is and why I should try it on my next trip to a place that serves Italian food.