The owners of a family-run Harrogate restaurant say the town’s independents are in danger of being choked by a wave of chains like The Ivy.
Stefano Lancellotti, chef and co-owner of the much-loved, award-winning Italian restaurant Sasso, said the environment for local eateries was worse than when he first opened the doors with his wife and co-owner Sara Ferguson nearly 20 years ago.
Stefano said: “There seemed to be a lot more independents in Harrogate when we opened.
“I’m annoyed at the arrival of the likes of The Ivy from London. Chains have higher margins and so many other advantages when it comes to competing with local businesses.
“In Italy, they limit the number of chains allowed in each town.”
The two co-owners know what it’s like to battle against the odds.
Specialising in authentic Emilia Romagna dishes, they’ve managed to do so with great success for nearly two decades in the heart of Harrogate’s ever-changing and increasingly crowded dining out scene.
Over the years, Sasso has featured regularly in The Good Food Guide and even celebrated being rated as one of the best Italian restaurants in the whole UK in one edition.
A labour of love, both Stefano and Sara are proud of their achievements since they turned their dream restaurant into a reality in 1998.
Tough times in early days
But times are very different from when the couple first inspected derelict premises at 8-10 Princes Square, then lying just below Haighton Smith & Dewar Chartered Accountants, in an area dominated by estate agents.
Stefano said: “There wasn’t even a front door. It was all offices.
“It had a different floor, a different colour and there were no pictures.
“We had no money but we were lucky. We got a rent-free period at first and Sara’s dad is an architect and offered to be a partner in the business.”
With one of Harrogate’s most loyal customer bases, Sasso has become well known for its warm, intimate feel and leafy al fresco dining area where people can be seen sitting outside enjoying a bite to eat - at the right time of year.
The couple have had to make major alterations to the non-descript building from the very start, including installing a pale pink terraccotta tiled floor in the basement where the bulk of its more than 100 covers are located in the restaurant’s myriad of eating areas, alcoves and rooms.
Even so, life was far from easy for this fledgling business for quite a while.
Sara said: “One of our early customers, a nice old gent, said to me once “you’re brave to open a restaurant in Harrogate. The first four years were so tough. We didn’t have a holiday for two years.
“People who own independents are prepared to put the work in, though.”
Genuine Italian roots to chef's approach
Setting up Sasso was a gamble which saw Stefano take a homesick Sara back to England from his native Italy.
This dedicated and passionate chef hails originally from Bologna, the capital and largest city of the Emilia-Romagna Region in northern Italy.
It lies at the heart of a region noted for the finest egg pasta, balsamic vinegar, parmesan cheese, parma ham and much more.
Stefano said: “Italy is the home of the Slow Food revolution.
“In Italy pasta-makers say they like their ingredients to travel ‘zero kilometers’.
“I spend a lot of my week sourcing the right ingredients from the right suppliers. I’m well known for being pernickity.”
Although inspired at first by the style and, to a degree, the menu of the much-loved Flying Pizza restaurant in Leeds, Stefano and Sara have outgrown their influences over the last two decades.
Independent inspectors in the 2017 Good Food Guide praise Stefano and his team’s “excellent hand-made pasta dishes.”
Such has been the success of Sasso that it opened a sister cafe, Marconi.
Situated in the same street at the other end like a pair of foodie bookends, it, too, has become something of a Harrogate institution.
But it would be a mistake to assume Sasso’s enduring reputation means life for Stefano and Sara is a bit of a breeze these days.
There’s the chains, for a start, which Stefano says simply have nothing behind them except financial goals.
Besides, Sasso is a restaurant and everyone knows how tough running one of those can be.
Stefano said: “Sara told me about the time one of her friends had a bad cabonara when she was out.
“It was very dry so she asked to have her meal replaced and the waitress said to her “we’re sorry, we’ve got none left in the packet.
“I’m in the kitchen seven days a week so that nothing ever happens like that here.”