Having written in praise of a remote café in Northern Italy that I frequent for a few days every few years, it seemed only right that I should focus on a more local haunt which has allowed me to survive many a happy couple of hours pretending I am in Italy.
Pasta Romagna is slap bang in the middle of Leeds city centre, in Albion Place. I don’t know exactly how long it has been there, but certainly for the 20 years I have been in Leeds it has brightened up my visits to town.
Run by Gilda and her son James, it is an energised, buzzy, loud and entertaining café quite unique in my experience (and regular readers will know just how extensive that experience is when it comes to espresso haunts). I may patronise Café Nero and Costa when I’m anywhere else, but it would be unthinkable to even enter these places with PR on hand. Not particularly because of the coffee; it’s not the best I’ve had anywhere, and it’s not the cheapest. But it’s a great example of a place where that simply doesn’t matter, because in this era of homogeneous franchised high street frontages, PR remains a beacon of independent spirit and authenticity.
Even when I’m the only customer in there, it’s lively, and not because I’m dancing on the tables. Usually there’s Italian opera blasting out, and in case the music isn’t quite loud enough, Gilda sings along with gusto. Just because you aren’t an opera singer doesn’t mean you can’t be an opera singer with an attentive public, and Gilda was clearly named for singing. Sometimes I think PR’s musical environment has been in some measure responsible for the kids all loving Verdi and Puccini, which is surely no bad thing. And if the music isn’t loud enough, there’s always the chance of an argument between James and Gilda, with affectionate insults and curses being traded in both directions.
Regulars, of course, come here for the peformances of all types. But the look of bewilderment on the faces of unsuspecting visitors to the shop, maybe on a first-time shopping trip to Leeds, is an added bonus. Gilda shrieks raucously at one and all in her inimitable broken English, and anyone who wants to avoid the crossfire buries their head and eats with eyes fixed firmly on the table.
Often there is a group of Italians conversing in a corner. Music to my ears. Over the years I have picked up a fair bit of Italian, and it’s nice to have an opportunity to practice my listening skills in such an open environment. Just a shame the practice doesn’t result in much understanding.
Not everyone has always appreciated what PR has to offer. Gilda was at the forefront of the drive to provide outdoor seating in the city centre many years ago, and fought a veritable battle with the council for the right to have her chairs and tables outside. Looking up and down Albion Place these days, there’s barely a frontage without tables. And then there was the complaint someone once made about the music. The attempt to silence Gilda failed miserably, as was inevitable, but for years after she had big notices posted up along the counter thanking the person who had filed the complaint because of all the resulting publicity and support for the café.
It’s odd really, because I escape to cafés usually to retreat, to think, to read. I’m constantly surprised that despite the cacophany of sound and all-round entertainment in PR, I still manage to read undisturbed for a good hour. It just shows it’s all about ambiance, and PR has that in spades.
Pasta Romagna is open 7 days a week in Albion Place, Leeds, with accomodating opening hours for at least the duration of normal shopping hours, but I have always found it open at 8am and have been in there at 6pm…