WE KEEP returning to something of a eating out conundrum. Why can’t Northallerton, on the surface a relatively affluent town, support some decent restaurants?

With just one or two honourable exceptions, there are few places that we could heartily recommend and it’s been that way for years.

There is a new Italian in Friarage Street but we have, so far, received mixed reports.

A visit will be paid after a decent bedding-in period.

The other day, however, the penny finally dropped. The reason why Northallerton folk don’t eat out on an evening is because they are so stuffed from frequenting the town’s many excellent coffee shops and cafes through the day.

Bettys is just the tip of a cappuccino-flavoured and toasted teacake iceberg. Not unlike many other town centres, it’s not just the cafes that are selling tea, coffee and something sticky sweet, almost every other retailer manages to squeeze in a small coffee bar.

“Would you like an espresso frappacino and a chocolate flapjack with your three-piece suite? No problem, sir.”

“Or perhaps a caramel macchiato and blueberry muffin with your large sliced white, madam?” It makes you wonder just how many speciality beverages (in the industry parlance) we drink.

The margins are attractive when you are struggling to sell other stuff. The mark-up on a cup of tea or coffee is enormous. Provided you can shift enough volume it’s a good business.

One of the newer cafes is Casa Rustica in Barkers Arcade, just off the High Street. As the name suggests, it is inspired by Italy although it is owned by a Brazilian, Leonardo Faro, who used to work at the chain chicken joint Nandos.

But don’t let that put you off.

Casa Rustica is small but perfectly formed and a world away from the corporate regimentation of Nandos/ Starbucks/Costa.

When I small, I mean cosy, intimate (you have to be really stand off-ish not to strike up a conversation with your table neighbours) and bordering on the claustrophobic but the atmosphere is electric, thanks mainly to the ebullient Mr Faro and his ever-willing and helpful team led by manageress Julie. Collectively, they generate a genuine feelgood atmosphere.

The ground floor has just a handful of tables for two, a deli counter and a stock of Italian goodies. Upstairs, there are more tables (28 covers in total) and a little more room, but not much.

The food on offer is fairly simple. There’s a range of sandwiches and paninis, salads, platters of cold meats and cheeses, the usual line-up of coffees and teas (including herbal teas) and a novel range of soft drinks, including nonalcoholic mojito sodas which seemed popular. Italian or Mediterranean ingredients dominate; the paninis feature prosciutto and continental cheeses, the salads are Greek or Caprese, the fresh breads are focaccia and ciabatta.

It is also licensed and the drinks menu features an impressive range of Proseccos by the glass and bottle.For our Saturday lunch, we picked the Casa Rustica platter to share (£14.95) – a pile of cold meats and cheeses with a caprese salad (mozzarella and baby tomatoes – charged separately at £4.95) some anti-pasti (olives, sundried tomatoes and feta cheese) plus small bowls of olive oil and balsamic vinegar to wash it all down.

The meats were mortadella, Milano salami, a spicy spianata salami, prosciutto, a smoked speck and, finally, a finnocchina salami. The cheeses were gruyère, emmental, fontal, provolone and brie. You will be impressed by my ability to identify and recall this long list of yumminess until I reveal I asked Julie to write them down. Sweetie that she was, she didn’t even ask why.

Now, of course, this little lot didn’t take much cooking but it was prettily presented and the quality of the components couldn’t be faulted. Neither could the baskets of Italian breads, particularly the crusty Altamura made with semolina flour.

We took our time grazing over this lovely platter, enjoying the view out of the window into the Arcade and the conversation of our neighbours at the next table, who appeared to be regulars.

Throughout, Leonardo or Julie were not far away checking to see if we had everything we needed.

The platter was substantial for a lunchtime dish and we had no room for the wide range of Italian pastries and desserts on offer. But they did sound lovely and I was persuaded to take away a gooey thing of which I can’t recall the name but it was a individual sponge cake soaked in limoncello liqueur and topped with something like a crème patisserie. It was delicious.

Our bill of £36 was inflated by two glasses of Leonardo’s best Valdobbiadene Prosecco (£4.80) and a small glass of house chardonnay (£4.85).

The lunch certainly provided evidence for my theory about why evening fare in Northallerton is so disappointing. We didn’t eat again for the rest of the day.

It should be pointed out that Casa Rustica has regular evening openings and can be booked for private dining.

Casa Rustica

9 Market Row, Northallerton DL7 *LN
Tel: 01609 258417
Email: casarustica@live.com. No website. Open: 9am-5pm,
Monday to Saturday
Disabled access: could be tricky
Vegetarian options available

Ratings (out of ten):

Food quality: 8
Surroundings: 8
Service: 9
Value: 8