Nearly two decades ago I spent several years as a student in Leeds. The most extravagant food got for us was a sit-in curry with the discount card we’d obtained in freshers’ week and cherished for the next three years, and occasionally a pizza from ‘Lucky’s’ (if you know, you know..)
Fortunately, 20 years on my tastes have got a little more ambitious, as have my friends, and food is often at the centre of our reunions in Leeds, where some of them still live.
I’m sure back in the early 2000s there were some great restaurants in the city, undiscovered by us thanks to our focus on Snakebite and Black and blue WKD instead, but nowadays it seems to me the food and drink scene is even more abundant in this fab city.
On top of that, my friends are better than ever at sorting out a place to remember for us – you might remember we tried Tattu one time, and also Pintura which has now sadly closed. This time they booked us in to a place called Stuzzi on Merrion Street – an area full of delightful memories including the joy that was ‘Heaven & Hell’ (don’t ask!).
Stuzzi gets its name from the Italian ‘stuzzichini’ which basically means small plates or finger food. Get the concept? Italian and Sicilian food, a menu that changes daily, everything home-made with a focus on seasonality and flavour and I was promised that the arancini are, quite frankly, to die for. What’s not to like?
I was too busy being excited to take pictures of the interior but it’s up some stairs, light, bright and airy with a blend of rustic and modern. It’s somewhere you feel comfortable and relaxed almost instantly, helped by service that’s friendly yet efficient.
We start with spritzes (as you do) while deciding quite how much of the food we can fill our faces with without appearing indecent. We may be in the middle of Leeds but it already feels like Italy, thanks to the menu that lists dish after dish that’s simultaneously simple yet tempting, the enthusiasm and passion of the staff, and then the food itself.
Huge platters arrive, stacked with cured meats, cheese, bread and olives. They come with a knowledgeable explanation of each element, from aged Gorgonzola Dolce and pungent taleggio to Nocellara olives and pickled celery, all with a top notch olive oil with all its grassy pepperiness.
Fritto misto was a crowd of prawns, the biggest whitebait I’ve seen and squid all in a light, crispy batter and piled high in a bowl. As for that Sicilian delight that is arancini… well, my pals were right. Hefty spheres of perfectly-cooked risotto encased in crispy breadcrumbs, the kind of food that inspires oohs and aahs when you pull them apart.
The starters were enough to whet the appetite, as they should, but it’s the pasta that really made Stuzzi somewhere to rave about. Big bowls that you can dig into and pass round a table.
First, a hearty bowl of what I think was rigatoni or gemelli served with a tender, earthy, beef shin and tomato ragu packed with the kind of flavour that can only come from hours of slow cooking and smothered in cheese.
Meatballs were dense without being tough, and I’m fairly sure they were a mixture of meat though I was too busy shovelling them and the sweet tomato sauce they were served with into my mouth.
But rather unexpectedly, the favourite of the night for me was a vegetarian dish of spinach pasta with garlic and chickpeas. No, not tinned chickpeas but home-roasted with lemon, giving them a much deeper flavour and a slightly more crunchy texture, as well as the tangy lemon adding a freshness to the dish. A revelation.
As if that wasn’t enough, a cucumber, fennel and burrata side was crunchy, light and fresh, again oozing that simplicity that makes Italian one of my favourite cuisines.
Dessert (though it all gets a bit hazy thanks to some excellent wine choices from their interesting list) and included a huge cannoli in tribute to Stuzzi’s Sicilian inspiration. We may or may not have washed it down with some rather lovely espresso martinis.
And there you have it. All the ingredients for a perfect meal. Great friends, a lovely restaurant, food full of flavour, great ingredients, knowledgeable, passionate staff, good wine and an atmosphere that transports you to Italy or Sicily from the heart of Leeds.
Stuzzi, Leeds was pretty special to me anyway, but you just made it that little bit more beautiful.
We paid in full at Stuzzi. They didn’t know I was a blogger.