The article below was the last restaurant review that I was able to write for TopicUK magazine before the coronavirus lockdown was implemented. It was published in the March 2020 edition of the magazine, available on-line only at the moment. Let’s hope that once the lockdown ends, Fino, as with all the other restaurants in Wakefield and elsewhere, can re-open.
The sense of history is palpable when you walk in through the door of Wakefield’s new Fino Italian restaurant in Northgate. The restaurant may be new, but the building, today accessed via the entrance in Gill’s Yard, and boasting medieval timbers, stone walls and leaded windows, is around 500 years old!
Readers with long memories may recall the property when it was a shop selling greetings cards. Back then, the building was flat-fronted and faced in what appeared to be rendered stonework. When the building was sold on in 1990, the new owners discovered that they had something much more interesting. As they started stripping walls and ceilings back to their original timbers, stone and brickwork, it became clear that the building was in fact one of Wakefield’s oldest surviving timber-framed properties, part of a larger house that had once occupied the site (now divided into 3 units, 53-57 Northgate). The owners decided to create a replica of the original gable-end frontage while revealing many of the original features, including the finely worked Elizabethan plaster ceiling and oak-panelled frieze on the first floor, the former bearing the date 1596, thought to be the year in which the building was re-modelled. That the building is now listed Grade II*, making it a building of national significance, should be a surprise to no one.
There has been a restaurant here, of course, for some years. Many will know it as the Cow Shed but, following the closure of that enterprise in the summer of 2019 and a period when the building stood empty, it is now under new management and opening as Fino on 24th November, just in time for the Christmas rush.
The project is the work of Jenny Thompson and Matthew Burton, owners of Qubana in Wood Street and Robatary in Northgate (just a few doors along from Fino). Indeed, the new manager at Fino is Murat Akyuz who was brought over from Robatary to set things up. Jenny, Matthew and their team are helping to revitalise the restaurant trade in the city: each of their restaurants has a distinctive style and great attention is paid the décor, food quality and service. That is very true of the Fino, which I visited twice (just to make sure!) within a few days.
My first visit to the establishment was with fellow members of Wakefield Civic Society’s monthly Dining Club in January 2020. Each month, the Club visits a different restaurant and at the end of the meal, members get to score their experience. Once all the scores in the year have been totted up, the Society awards its coveted ‘Restaurant of the Year’ award to the restaurant (or sometimes, restaurants) receiving the highest scores.
Given that this was the first Dining Club outing of the year and we were visiting a brand-new restaurant to boot, members turned out in good number and there were some 29 of us who sat down to dine. We more or less took over the whole of the downstairs part of the building (which meant we were handily close to the bar): there was just one other table occupied by a couple who must have wondered what was happening as we all trooped in, but they didn’t seem to mind (our members are very well behaved!).
Sandra Elliott, who organises our Dining Club outings, had liaised with members and the restaurant to transmit our menu choices in advance which certainly helped speed the service and most meals arrived in front of the right person although there were one or two side dishes that took a bit of calling out to locate their rightful owner. But an impressive result given that there was also a party dining in the upstairs restaurant as well.
Overall, the food quality was excellent, and people seemed to enjoy their evening very much (good company and good food!). However, I abandoned any attempt to take notes for this review – I was having too much fun chatting to fellow diners and the staff were a little preoccupied serving up the dishes.
Instead, I arranged with Murat to return to Fino a few days later for my second bite of the pomodoro and to make sure I did the job properly. On this occasion, my partner and I dined as guests of the restaurant.
You’ll have noticed that the restaurant is styled as a pizzeria and cicchetti. I think everyone will understand the pizzeria bit but may be less familiar with the concept of ‘cicchetti’. (OK, I’ll admit it – even I had to look it up.) Cicchetti are small-medium sized snacks or side dishes, typically served in bars in Venice. They could be described as the Italian equivalent of tapas. You can combine them to make a meal, mix and match while sharing with others or treat them as a starter dish.
We chose an Insalata Caprese and a Goat’s Cheese and Fresh Fig Insalata (priced at £6.45 and £6.95 respectively), followed by a Vegetarian Lasagne al Forno and a Portofino Maltagliati (thin strips of pasta with green pesto, green beans and potato). These were priced at £8.45 and £12.95. We finished with an Italian Crème Brûlée and a Lemon Cheesecake (£5.95 each). All were excellent. Nicely filling without being over-facing, and, of course, delicious, perhaps not surprising given that everything in the kitchen is masterminded by Italian head chef Vito (who hails from Bari).
After the meal, Murat sat down with us for a chat. He has worked for Jenny and Matthew for 10 years and clearly loves the job. He helped to set up Robatary, which I reviewed back in 2016, so this was more of a catch up really. As well as the à la carte menus (available to view on line), there is a specials menu, new every week, and you can also take advantage of a lunchtime special of a classic pizza, pasta or Stromboli (a wrapped pizza) and a small glass of house wine (or half pint of draught beer or soft drink) for just £6.95, which has to be terrific value in anybody’s book.
The restaurant has seats for 35 downstairs and 25 on the upper floor. There’s also a seating area outside on Gill’s Yard, but we didn’t try that! Given that we were there in January, we much preferred the warm welcome on offer indoors! I guess we’ll just need to go back when the sun comes out….
Need to know:
Fino Pizzeria and Cicchetti, 53 Northgate, Wakefield, WF1 3BP
Tel: 01924 369641
Opening times: Sun – Thu, 12pm – 10pm, Fri – Sat, 12pm – 11pm