The first time we brought Spawn to Edinburgh to callously abandon her tearful little face in a soulless new-build apartment block, we were directed by a recommendation in our hotel to a nearby ‘Italian’ restaurant. We ate there, possibly twice, and we ate there again when we came to visit, when we came to collect her, when we brought her back, and so on. She’s only into the start of her third year as I write this, so we’ve been going there for a little over two years, but they know us now. We turned up with a whole crowd of friends during our visit to the Fringe this summer, and we went again when we installed Spawn in her digs.
Ristorante Isola is a very rare beast in affordable British dining. ‘Italian’ food is everywhere – on our way home from Edinburgh we were diverted through the unfeasibly picturesque Lincolnshire town of Stamford, and the place was infested with generic Italian dining establishments, chain and local. There is almost nowhere that it isn’t easy to find a place that offers pizza, some form of pasta, starters that resemble antipasti, draft Peroni and tiramisu. Some of these places are good or even excellent, but what I’ve rarely come across anywhere else in Britain is an Italian regional cuisine. Isola serves Sardinian food, and while I can’t comment directly on its authenticity, the menu has the kind of coherence and consistency that my limited experience leads me to associate with geographically specific food cultures.
Sardinian food, as presented by Isola, is not totally different to other Italian food I’ve eaten, but it has its own character. The menu is full of exciting marine produce (their seafood risotto is a reliably wonderful plateful), and beautifully-cooked meat, as well as a variety of pastas and sauces – they also serve pizza, but none of us has ever tried it. Octopus and pork are characteristically Sardinian ingredients, I understand, but the flavour which seems to be truly characteristic of the island’s cuisine is that of myrtle – a plant which I didn’t even realise could be eaten, although it turns out that it’s in mortadella, and is also widely used in Corsica.
On our most recent Spawn-depositing trip to Edinburgh I began with stuffed artichokes, which had been filled with mashed potato, and topped with melted cheese, possibly some kind of young pecorino (although I’m almost certainly wrong). A dish like this raises a phenomenon that I’ve observed as I’ve learned more about Italian cooking, one which Rachel Roddy also notes in her book Five Quarters. The ‘Mediterranean diet’ which has been widely promoted as a healthy one, and which supposedly consists largely of fish, vegetables and olive oil, seems in practice to cleave pretty closely to the hearty Northern European comfort-food formula of carbs, meat and dairy. I mean, yes, people in Southern Europe certainly appreciate and understand their seafood, and the vegetable dishes I’ve tried in Spain and more recently in Sicily have been wonderful, but the standard plate of food is still a pile of gorgeous warming stodge: there are a lot of parallels between traditional working-class cooking in Italy and England. Mashed potato with melted cheese is a winner every time, but combined with the delicately aromatic flavour and firm but yielding flesh of a well-prepared artichoke, it is sex on a plate. I swapped one for one of Spouse’s scallops, delightfully firm and sweet, with just the right amount of salt and umami from the accompanying pancetta.
I followed those four parcels of gustatory paradise with ravioli filled with taleggio, pear, and some kind of nut, probably walnut. I’d be more precise with a bit of retrospective research, but that part of Isola’s menu isn’t quite legible on their website. The pasta was perfect; although every self-respecting domestic cook in Italy cooks beautiful egg pasta, it’s still amazing how dense and dry it can be in an English restaurant. Furthermore, the contents of the pasta were not only perfectly prepared, they offered a completely congruent and mouth-exciting flavour combination. Taleggio is a rinsed-rind cow’s milk cheese, and it proves to pair as well with pear as blue cheeses do – without the acid ammoniac tang of a blue the pear seems rounder and sweeter, but the flavour of the cheese itself also came through very distinctly. A little musty crunch of nut perfectly complemented the two dominant ingredients, harmonising with the truffle oil in the creamy sauce, and I was a very happy boy.
The food at Isola is always good restaurant cooking, the kind of stuff you have to go out for, cooked with the kind of skill that’s rarely found in a domestic kitchen, but it has a homely element as well. It’s clearly cooked with love, and although it is creative it isn’t experimental: it doesn’t make the diner work for the experience. Every plateful has a familiarity to it, and lets you settle into it like a well-used armchair. This was particularly the case with Spawn’s primo, a plateful of spaghetti carbonara which she said (to my great delight) was almost indistinguishable from the carbonara I cook at home, although I use pancetta (belly bacon) rather than the more authentic, but much fattier guanciale (cheek). They must have access to some good eggs to compete with the ones laid by our hens.
We have always been made to feel welcome in Ristorante Isola, where service is delivered with friendliness and professional efficiency. There is a dignity to the profession of waiter in some European countries that it is hard for English front-of-house staff to emulate: you know when you order here that you are speaking to someone who knows the menu, who knows food, who takes pride in the work of communicating the subtleties of the menu to the guest and the needs of the diner to the kitchen. At the same time there is no artificial formality, and by the time you’ve been often enough for your face to be familiar, you will be in no doubt that your custom is valued. We’ve had some good conversations here, and we are beginning to feel a strong connection to Sardinia. When we visit, and thanks almost entirely to the experience of eating at Isola we will definitely be visiting, we will already know something about the island’s food, and we’ll be as keen to savour its virtues in the wild as we were to eat arancine in Sicily.
We finished our meal with (for Spouse and myself) a caffè coretto made with grappa: our waiter confessed that her hand had slipped, and they were very strong, but entertainingly so. I had their excellent saffron semifreddo drizzled with honey, which is served much less frozen than in most UK restaurants, and they supplied us with a complimentary round of Mirto liqueur, made from the ubiquitous myrtle. It tastes a little like medicine, but it feels like exactly the right thing to have in your mouth after a meal at Isola. ‘Isola’ means ‘island’, but it does not mean ‘isolated’: it’s rare to find a place to eat out where I feel such a strong sense of connection as here, to the food and the people, and where I feel completely safe in the kitchen’s hands – I often just jab my finger at the menu and order the first thing I encounter. We were informed that they have a ten-year lease on the premises, so we probably have another seven years or so to enjoy their food: we will take every opportunity.