If ever the good folk who make Doctor Who find themselves in need of a spare Tardis, I know exactly where they can find one right here in Aberdeen.
Because if anywhere is bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside it is Rustico.
From the street, it’s an unprepossessing building with its main door sitting right on the corner of Union Row. But once inside it opens up to room after room, sprawling over couple of floors in a rabbit warren packed with tables, full of content-looking diners.
Every time we go in, we end up in a different dining area that we hadn’t realised was there.
Such is its popularity that, for all it looks like it could take a stadium full of folk in its nooks and crannies, we were lucky to get one of the last tables available for booking in this little bit of Sicily in the heart of of Aberdeen.
The press of people created a busy, vibrant atmosphere, with staff whizzing hither and thither with plates of food and trays of drinks.
A friendly waiter ushered us over to our table for two on the ground floor in a spot on the hinterland of one of the dining spaces, almost corridor-ish, but not quite. It was a good vantage point for taking in the atmosphere of Italian-themed wall hangings and decorations, giving the place an authentic air to complement the red-chequered table cloths.
The menu had that authentic feel to it too, although not quite as old school tradish as I recall Rustico from days of yore. It’s been a fixture on the dining scene for a while now, has this grand old eatery.
Some things, though, remain the same and that’s the idea of fine food being a thing to share and enjoy. Which is why my other half and I decided to kick off proceedings with an abbuffatina – a platter of goodies to be shared by two.
As we waited, we started sipping away at our bottle of house red. It has to be said this was a wince-inducing wine, the rough sort that doesn’t get better on the second mouthful, or the third, or the last.
Still, our disappointment at that vanished with the arrival of the starter, a wooden board of tasty things that had us both beaming.
Rustico seems to be big into the concept of looks being deceiving. At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking abbuffatina is all leaves, olives and mozzarella. But lurking beneath that is layer after layer of different hams and salamis.
The mozzarella was gorgeous, creamy with that unmistakable texture. A chunk of that, married up with a slice of bressola and you’re in foody bliss. Throw in some chutney and ham and it takes it up a level to epicurean nirvana.
It’s fair to say we both enjoyed sharing this platter (especially as Mrs B doesn’t like olives so they’re mine all mine.)
Despite being packed to the rafters, the fast and furious staff managed to keep things turning over at a pace.
The platter was whisked awa’ and in fairly short order our mains arrived. Having basically stuffed my face with the chill counter of a fine deli for a starter I was feart I had overstretched my eating capacity.
But once my linguine all marinara arrived it was a case of challenge accepted. It wasn’t a huge bowl of food, but it didn’t need to be. This was a dish that was all about the flavours.
Perfectly al dente pasta formed a nest to support tender rings of squid, fat mussels and plumb, inviting-looking king prawn, with chunks of monkfish waiting in the wings to add their meaty sweetness to the party.
It was all bound with a rich tomato sauce, that the menu promised would be spicy and garlicky. Big tick on the garlic front, I had no fear of vampires for the next couple of days. The spicy bit was subtle to the point of “eh, and the chilli is where?” But by the end, there was a gentle glow of satisfaction on my tastebuds.
Clearly, less is more, especially when you’re balancing a spice attack with subtle seafood. And this was a nicely balanced dish indeed.
Across the table there was a pizza feast going on. The ragusa iteration came with a pork sausage ragu, spiced salami, garlic mushrooms and a chilli cream cheese.
Now, as we all know, when it comes to pizza the base is king. Get that wrong and it doesn’t matter what manner of fine things you slather on top, it just won’t hang together.
Rustico managed the neat trick of a thick pizza base at the edge, but beautifully thin across the centre. It was a delight to carve into slices, fold, pick up and get stuck in about.
The sausage ragu carried lovely notes of fennel, while the cream cheese brought a welcome sweetness to balance out the bite of the salami. However, the overarching note was salt. It was a tad heavy-handed, but considering the constituent ingredients, perhaps not unsurprising.
We had a quick look over the desserts menu but decided against it for two good reasons. Our train home was imminent and we were stuffed.
Rustico is an institution in Aberdeen, an Italian restaurant that is in with the very granite bones of the city. It is still here after 20 years because it does what it does well. Good, authentic Mediterranean cuisine is made with passion and served with a welcoming warmth. You can have a fine feed without breaking the bank… although they might want a rethink on that house red.
Address: 62 Union Row, Aberdeen, AB10 1SA