[STOP PRESS: SECCO IS NOW CLOSED (SEPTEMBER 2011)]
86 Pilgrim Street
Newcastle upon Tyne
La Pergola, the best restaurant in Rome, sits atop the Cavalieri hotel. With its three Michelin stars, I thought it might be a starting point for a piece about Italian food. Sadly my editor didn’t agree: sure, it may have a great view and its fried zucchini flowers with caviar are to die for, but €300 a head with wine is stretching it and, besides, Heinz Beck the chef is German. Perhaps somewhere a little closer to home and more authentic?
So I found myself climbing the mountain of dark stairs to the top floor of Secco in Newcastle: there’s no lift, so it’s out of bounds to wheelchairs. The room at the top is very blue, with Italian chandeliers.
Secco has been part of Newcastle’s culinary scene for years, since the De Giorgi family colonised this end of Pilgrim Street. They were from Salento in Puglia, the bottom of the stiletto heel of the boot that is Italy. One of the poorest parts of the country, Puglia managed to develop the most imaginative cooking. The paucity of ingredients – little meat and few green vegetables – led to a cuisine based around beans, potatoes, chicory, broccoli rabe, semolina bread, horsemeat and pasta made without eggs. This is cucina povera (the cuisine of the poor). No Michelin stars here: the region eschews the celebrity chef. Even today, the best restaurants are like private houses without signs or menus: you eat what you are given and you are given whatever is in the larder.
It was from this tradition that Secco began: honest, fresh cooking. Except that Secco had delusions of fine dining: the portions were small and the prices weren’t cheap. Now the De Giorgi family has sold off the empire and the restaurant is owned by its former manager, Hamed Fardoust. He’s a young Iranian who is slowly adding his own stamp.
We started with plastic flowers on the table: not good. It needs fresh blooms to raise the spirit after such a gloomy entrance. But things soon improved. The tuna carpaccio was fresh as the sea, if cut a little thick. We had bocconnini, little pieces of tender chicken wrapped in lardo and fresh sage, with vincotto on the side. This was a sign of authenticity – it’s the Puglian version of balsamic. We had the lightest polenta, folded with cheese that created a souffléd texture and was absolutely delicious. Then we had kebabs in “Saracen” spices.
Hang on a moment, Saracen? In Puglia? This was a spicy, Arabic marinade. It’s Hamed’s secret weapon: a Tunisian chef. If the best restaurant in Rome can have a German chef, why not an Arab in Newcastle? Puglia is only a cruise missile away from North Africa, after all. We moved on to pasta: panzerotti, oxtail pasta parcels properly made with durum wheat, and orecchiette, the staple of Puglia, with the freshest octopus, chilli and baby tomatoes. Both were exquisite.
The main course proved that Secco has discarded its “fine dining” label without sacrificing quality. The portions were possibly too large for comfort: great slabs of roast pork loin, with (the Arab influence again) prunes, apricots and lemon thyme, and stuffed shoulder of lamb. Baked slowly, with braised fennel, this was exceptionally good, and, at £15, a bargain. The wine list is interesting, and wines by the glass were good.
However, why are Italian restaurants so bad at puddings? The sponge in the tiramisu had scarcely touched coffee: the topping more cream than real mascarpone and eggs, and no discernable trace of liquor. For the sake of research we also tried the ricotta and chocolate cake: it was heavy and dull. Heinz Beck’s “grand dessert” is three courses of imaginative delights: it’s a shame our Italian restaurants can’t manage just one.