A resolutely unstylish thoroughfare in Scarborough old town is the setting for an Italian restaurant that some claim to be the best in Britain. Not that you would guess its excellence from the interior design in which vinous impedimenta and framed reviews jostle for space on the walls with the plaudits and photos of celebrity clients. The genial dome of Sir Alan Ayckbourn is flanked by Dickie Bird and Danny La Rue. The menu, bearing a Hockney sketch dashed off at the end of a meal, is your first indication that La Lanterna is exceptional. Offering Piedmontese dishes with a Yorkshire twist, it ranges from a fish stew ("stufato di pesce di Scarborough con crostone") at £9.95 to a seasonal starter of carpaccio topped with white truffle "from £33".
If the eight-page menu doesn't offer sufficient temptations, more come from daily specials announced at your table. Last week, starters included "local langoustine in tempura batter, ravioli filled with black pudding, mackerel just grilled on the bone, handmade polpetti – "which are meatballs", with main courses of "turbot – either grilled whole or served off the bone with a white wine sauce, strips of fillet steak with gorgonzola and roasted peppers, lobster Thermidor..."
Miraculously, this cornucopia is the work of a single individual. Equipped with a moustache and a personality that is almost a caricature of Italian brio, Giorgio Alessio arrived from the Piedmontese truffle centre of Moncalvo in the Eighties and acquired La Lanterna in 1997. Not only does he cook all the dishes – you imagine him whirling like a dervish in his tiny kitchen during the Saturday night rush – but he also gathers many ingredients. He picks the ceps for "risotto con funghi porcini" from a secret location near Scarborough and visits the town's fish market daily at 7am for his specials. Sadly, North Yorkshire fungi are rather thin on the ground this year and the velvet crabs are equally elusive. Alessio uses the little snappers in an acclaimed sauce for spaghetti. During a recent visit, the author Kathy Lette described this starter with characteristic vigour: "a mouth orgasm".
Faced with this deprivation, my wife chose a starter from the menu. Her pears baked in red wine protruded phallically from a warm sauce of gorgonzola and mascarpone. She described the sweet fruit enrobed in silky sauce as "soft and soothing". Comfort food par excellence, it tasted as sexy as it looked. I went for roasted peppers in a bagna cauda sauce on deep-fried polenta, an intense combination of pungency and sweetness, emollience and crunch.
"You don't think the sauce is a bit on the aggressive side, do you?" I asked my wife.
"No!" she said, affronted at my wimpishness. "That hit of anchovy and garlic is exactly how it should be. Bagna cauda is a lovely hot bath for autumn."
I couldn't resist a second starter, which I reluctantly agreed to share. The battered langoustines turned out to be six gigantic, butterflied crustaceans of scarcely conceivable sweetness and tenderness.
My wife's main course of risotto cooked with orange and Raschera cheese (a Piedmontese speciality somewhat like Fontina) was a masterly rendition; the separate grains of rice retained a good bite, while slender parings of orange zest cut the richness of the cheese. My ox cheek cooked in red wine for seven hours was a perfect definition of that mouth-watering word "braise". Tender, rich and flaking, it is the perfect cold-weather dish.
As I mopped up the last of a generous plateful, Alessio emerged from the kitchen to whisk up zabaglione on a spirit stove for a neighbouring diner. The strands of yolky foam he scooped into a dessert bowl were a powerful temptation but I had a slight sensation of coming apart at the seams. Dessert seemed impossible – until we were presented with a second recitation. From a list of 13 homemade ice-creams, we plumped for saffron, hazelnut, dark chocolate with chilli and black pudding. Very grown-up ices, they provided intense, true flavours wrapped up in sweet, chilly creaminess. I thought the chilli had been omitted from the chocolate until it hit – pow! – in a startling aftertaste. The black pudding, which I thought I'd misheard, turned out to be exactly that. Tiny fragments in a beige mix exactly conveyed its singular flavour.
I found a tiny corner of bodily space to take on board a chunk of the best gorgonzola I've ever tasted, cut from a great, flowing mound imported by Alessio direct from the cooperative in Novara, and washed it down with the last of our litre of excellent Barbera (a bargain at £27) from Moncalvo. At last our heroic onslaught was over, though the lavish praise from our dining neighbours for the fish stew instantly prompted plans for a return visit. "'Ow we doing?" inquired the chef-patron, as he plonked half a dozen different types of grappa on the table.
La Lanterna, 33 Queen Street, Scarborough, North Yorkshire (01723 363616)
Around £50 a head for three courses with wine
Tipping policy: “No service charge. All tips go to the staff”
Side Orders: North Yorks stars
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