Restaurants in Durham can be a little like entrances to Narnia.
Small doorways lead you up above shops or plunge you down into cellars as businesses make use of every inch of the cramped historic centre.
It was through one such doorway that I discovered Capriccio. I’d decided last-minute to treat my housemate to dinner, and a relaxed, informal Italian seemed to fit the bill.
The restaurant was buzzing as we reached the top of the stairs in the Saddler Street building. Getting a table in Durham on a Saturday night isn’t always easy, but after a hurried exchange in Italian, the waiters showed us to a corner table on the less-populated upper floor.
Many Italian restaurants fail to boast even one authentically Latin member of staff, so we were amused to find it a surprise that all the waiters, and the chef, hailed from The Boot.
Despite being one of those troublesome vegan types, choosing from the varied menu still took a little doing.
All the usual suspects are there, plus plenty more off-piste dishes for those tired of tagliatelli carbonara and pizza stagioni.
I plumped for the Bruschetta Napoletana (£4.95), simply constructed from homemade bread, tomato, basil, and garlic.
Fresh and flavoursome, it was happily dissimilar to the stodgy, tasteless affair which has befallen me at other establishments.
While the menu was modestly priced, the wine list was a little steeper than usual. There is no dirt-cheap house red to hide behind, the selection ranging from a damage-limiting £17.95 cabernet sauvignon to an eye-watering £250 brunello.
At £21, the light, fruity valpollicella did us nicely.
Though I did somewhat regret my role as chauffeur as my housemate polished off the majority of the bottle.
For the main course we both went for pasta, often a route which will lead to mediocre, disappointing fare. Mine was penne alla Siciliana (£7.65), made with aubergine, fresh basil and tomato
Our amusing waiter Marciano was happy to ask the chef to omit the mozzarella for me after he helpfully explained how its absence would impact on the dish.
My housemate, a fickle creature, decided to go for the spaghetti puttanesca (£7.45) despite her dislike of anchovies.
The dish – which I politely declined to point out translates as “whore’s spaghetti” – is comprised of garlic, anchovies, capers and black olives.
“I don’t like anchovies because they’re too salty,” she said. “But I just fancied something a bit …” she smacked her lips. “Salty?” I suggested. “Yes,” she said.
The Siciliana was studded with chunks of melt-in-the-mouth aubergine and both our main courses were served in merciful portions.
Italian restaurants are usually over generous with pasta and it can end up seeming like a chore to eat.
The more manageable portions did, however, leave my dining partner a little regretful that she wasn’t quite replete. Until she remembered dessert.
Suffering from a gluttonous dilemma, she see-sawed between the chocolatey options and the citrusy options, until her eyes fell upon the cannolo sicilliano.
The apparently a traditional Sicilian dessert was described as “a wafer roll filled with ricotta cheese, chocolate drops and candied orange peel”.
“Is it strange or nice?” She asked Marciano. “It is strange and strange – and nice,” he replied. And thus the choice was made.
“He’s right,” she said, her mouth full of ricotta.
In total the bill came to £57 for three courses each, not bad considering the price of the wine.
Both the food and the atmosphere at Capriccio’s definitely made it a repeatable experience