Contini George Street

103 George St, Edinburgh

0131 225 1550

Lunch/Dinner: £18-£38

Food rating: 10/10

IT takes stamina to eat your way through a traditional Italian meal, especially when it’s celebratory. You’ll kick off with the ritual of the pre-dinner drink, the "aperitivo", generally accompanied by “spuntini”, savoury bites – everything from crisps and olives to pizza and mini sandwiches. Then it’s the antipasti, often a meal in itself: salumi, greens, salads, cheeses, shellfish, stuffed vegetables, crostini and bruschetta. Even if you try to be restrained, chances are you’ll crack when the “primi” are served: pasta, risotto, arancini, gnocchi, polenta. “Secondi’ follow, copious meat and fish dishes; a hearty bollito misto with salsa verde and mostarda fruits; salt cod perhaps. Next, or at the same time, come the “contorni”: spinach, grilled vegetables, those irresistible golden-crusted "patate al forno”, scented with rosemary, and so on. Then there’s the “dolci”. It has to be said that Italians aren’t that big into dessert (unless you count biscotti soaked in toothsome wines), but you can still expect the offer of ice cream, fruits, panna cotta, tiramisù et al.

It’s a mystery to me why Italians, albeit no longer as slim as when Sophia Loren was sloping around in the 1950s, remain svelte, by and large. I suspect that the epicentre of their eating culture is still firmly planted in home cooking, and this gives them a civilised balance, unlike the UK, which strides resolutely down the US eating path, consuming fewer meals cooked from scratch in domestic kitchens.

At Contini George Street in Edinburgh, there is clearly a realisation that eating habits are changing here. The Italian full Monty, though a deeply attractive proposition, is rarely a realistic undertaking. And if not careful, Italian restaurants can turn into Britalian outfits, the popular pizza/pasta/gelato formula, but the price limits in this category are hostile to restaurateurs keen to present their customers with food of anything other than basic provenance. Healthy eating has never been more of a preoccupation. The second level reading book on the war on sugar is the war on refined carbs.

The new à la carte menu at Contini George Street reflects the zeitgeist. Only two pasta dishes and one risotto are on offer. The “primi” now showcase high quality meats and cheeses given modern treatment. So our velvety, rosemary-cured, Tuscan (Protected Geographical Indication) lardo from Tuscany came with creamed Italian goat’s cheese, luscious thyme-roasted grapes and crumbled biscotti; original and not expensive at £6. Novel combinations give a nod to “clean eating”. Raw cauliflower shavings come doused with porcini and lemon oil, under texturally complementary breadcrumbs and crumbled Venetian spiced walnuts. Paper-thin raw fennel provides a crisp structure that supports slices of soft pink-dashed Tarocco orange and fat mauve-green olives, all drizzled with acacia honey.

Carina and Victor have had the nerve and conviction to replace tried-and-tested trattoria baggage with new wave delights. So raw courgette, rather than being some tired ubiquitous vegetable is dressed with fresh mint, yoghurt, chilli and first-rate Parmigiano Reggiano. Raw halibut with fried capers, dill, avocado crema and seaweed cracker, made a small but very fine taster. There’s more than judicious juxtaposition here.

Naturally we had to check out the less radical options. I can report that the agnolotti – homemade organic egg pasta stuffed with spinach, nutmeg and ricotta – are absolutely lovely, and still come coated in that marvellous butter and basil sugo that’s good enough to drink. The Fontodi extra virgin olive oil is another show-stealer with its lime-green glints and Tuscan pepperiness that grips the back of the tongue.

Charred lamb, crusty with coriander seeds, salted anchovies and whipped up cream of garlic, served with nutty Castelluccio lentils and salsa verde, only needed one improvement: the promised puntarelle (Roma chicory) was a no-show. Some might find my pearly cod, poached in cold-pressed olive oil, with fennel, samphire and chilli, a tad intense. But I was having a love-in with the impeccably fresh, salty fish, and the sublime oil.

There are desserts, but if you want to hang on to the sensation of healthful satisfaction and balance that Contini George Street gives you, you might just call it day.