The Scottish Café and Restaurant opens at the National Gallery of Scotland

The Scottish Café and Restaurant opens at the National Gallery of Scotland

Given the chance to bid to run the café and restaurant at the National Gallery of Scotland, Carina and Victor Contini knew that all their Italian heritage and instincts pointed to one thing: a place that properly celebrated Scottish food. Donald Reid found out more.

When the concession to run the 120-cover café and restaurant in the National Gallery of Scotland on the Mound in Edinburgh came up for renewal this year a predictable array of contract caterers, many based in England, came forward to bid. They were joined by Victor and Carina Contini of Centotre, the George Street café and restaurant they established five years ago after stepping away from the family business, Valvona & Crolla. Centotre was followed by Zanzero in Stockbridge in 2007. Both are palpably Italian-themed operations, but for this venture the Continis felt that Scotland’s premier venue for art should also be a home for inspiring Scottish food.

‘Here’s a space that’s in the principal Scottish arts centre, right in the heart of Edinburgh, at the heart of Scotland – the natural conclusion is that it should be the Scottish Café and Restaurant,’ Carina explains.

‘Central to our tender was that the café/restaurant should be a celebration of Scottish suppliers,’ she continues, fully prepared to justify what some might interpret as a contradictory, or possibly even opportunistic championing of Scottish food. Insincerity is, however, about the last thing you could pin on the Continis. ‘We wanted to use our Italian understanding of healthy food, and Italian attitudes to suppliers, seasons and quality, but create an identity that comes from our Scottish roots.’

A John Bellany painting of Carina’s grandfather’s ice-cream parlour in Cockenzie hangs in the café, part of a policy first forged at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery to include art within the café environment. She points to the picture. ‘The truth is, that’s my heritage. Hokey pokey ice cream with raspberry sauce is as much part of my culture as olive oil and tomatoes.’

Context is clearly central to the Continis’ vision. The multi-hued trees of Princes Street Gardens dominate the outlook from almost every table in the restaurant. ‘It’s beautiful being in the gardens, seeing the seasons change,’ they explain. Nature is reflected in the new interior by celebrated Scottish design company Anta, whose muted tweed fabrics in green and purple mix with distinctive oak chairs and solid wood tables. ‘It’s not tartan,’ says Carina with some pride. ‘It proves you can be Scottish and not twee.’

The same challenge is raised in the menu. The strap line at Centotre is ‘Fresh, Simple, Italian.’ Here it’s the Scottish equivalent: ‘Fresh, Simple, Scottish.’ The new venture has gone to great lengths to source and engage dozens of small-scale producers, growers and suppliers – something not done before on this level, to this kind of audience, in a large city centre venue. The menu is given closer inspection (see Taste Test, opposite), but bringing such food to an iconic venue is clearly a challenge that excites the Continis. ‘We’re a gallery, we’re part of the city, and we need to have food that’s accessible to the general gallery public. You can get a bowl of soup here for £3.25. We’ve also got a tourist market, and we want to show to them that Scottish food can be healthy, tasty and great value. If we get it right, it can be a brilliant gallery offer.’

The Scottish Café and Restaurant at the National Gallery of Scotland

Open Mon–Sun 9am–5pm, late opening till 7pm Thu and open Sat evening as restaurant only. 0131 226 6524