Friday, 26 April 2013

Italian food in Manchester, good enough for my father

Last night I visited one of Manchester's newest Italian restaurants which in turn prompted me to reflect on the current state of Manchester's Italian food offering. I think the Italian restaurant is such a staple in ours lives these days that they do struggle to stand out and get noticed by people like myself who love to eat out at least once or twice a week. For some reason, I have been much more likely in recent years to try a Japanese restaurant or perhaps go out for a decent curry than I have been to visit an Italian - and I think this comes down to that desire to try something new or at the very least something you definitely couldn't muster in your own home. In these hard economic times, we expect more from our dining out experiences. We want entertainment, we carefully judge the service and inspect the restaurant's interior - a lot of us taking to Trip Advisor when we get home. One might argue that it is easier for the more unusual Indian, Korean or even Greek restaurants to impress than it is for the humble Italian. Recently I made a comment to a friend about there not being a great choice of Italian restaurants in Manchester, but I have since realised that this is utter rubbish. We have a wealth of venues to choose from - it's just knowing which one is worth the visit, which I intend on helping with here... I haven't visited them all - that would just be greedy - but I have managed to experience a decent selection in order to give a reasonably well-informed opinion on the matter.

Don Giovanni's (by St Peter's Square on Oxford Road) used to be my favourite restaurant in the city. It was smart but not pretentious, luxurious but modest and came with good, authentic service. The menus were in the now-old-fashioned book format - something which I have come to miss as restaurants opt for the cheaper large piece of card option (as found in Pizza Express for example). The food was always gorgeous, so much so that I have taken my father (who, like me, is quite the food snob) there twice. Unfortunately, the restaurant has undergone a bit of a re-brand in the past couple of years, and now displays an orange colour scheme and new signage. The book-style menu is gone, replaced with an orange-themed large card equivalent, and the food doesn't seem to match the quality of previous meals I enjoyed there. Maybe the new branding has affected my taste buds! Price-wise, Don Giovanni's is quite reasonable, especially as it does still have a more up-market feel to many of its competitors, but personally I think you can get a better experience these days elsewhere for the same money. Just around the corner is Gio, which I haven't tried but is another favourite with theatre-goers - it looks a bit more downmarket but I seem to remember they have some attractive set menu offerings.

Just down the road is Felicinni's, part of a small chain, although their Didsbury restaurant has recently closed. The Oxford Road restaurant looks out onto the hidden canal that runs underneath busy bus route. They have an excellent lunch deal and are very similar to Don Giovanni's in terms of quality and price. Would definitely recommend if you are looking for some no-fuss, good quality and fairly-priced Italian food.

Then there is Ciao Bella on Portland Street - my local Italian. This is in a different world to the others. It is clearly family-owned and run by the Italian gentleman my partner and I were served by on our visit. He was slightly rude if I'm honest, but I was prepared to overlook that due to the authentic feel of the place and perhaps a culture difference! (I have found Italian men to be a bit rude on occasion during past trips to Rome and Venice!) The restaurant itself is below ground level, so feels quite cosy and hidden away from the hustle and bustle only a few feet away. When we visited, there was only us and one other couple there. Unfortunately its exterior doesn't do it any favours - the signage is tacky and there is a special offer advertised permanently on a board outside. The restaurant also regularly has deals on the likes of Groupon and Living Social which, to a knowledgeable bargain hunter like me, instantly makes it look desperate for business and therefore not worth exploring. The food we ate during our visit was nice, simple, not huge portions - but not the authentic, powerful flavours I was hoping for from such a family-run venture. I'm not in a hurry to return, but would definitely give it a second chance. Note that it is only really worth the money if you have a deal of some sort - the full price menu is quite expensive for what you get.

A peculiarly little-known restaurant which undoubtedly exceeds the quality of all three of the above is Stock, located in an old stock exchange on Norfolk Street. "Norfolk Street? Where's that?", I hear you say. Well, it's actually one of those small streets between Market Street and King Street - so ideal for a restaurant you might think. In reality, it means that nobody knows it exists because there is no reason to ever walk down this street. This could easily become one of Manchester's restaurant tragedies if they cannot create more awareness of its existence. The building is beautiful, with a magnificent high ceiling and ornate decor, yet with a contemporary twist. The service on both of my visits here has been fantastic - alert, friendly and helpful but not in that annoying pestering kind of way! And the food - I cannot fault it. I have used a voucher both times I have visited here, but would be happy to pay the quite reasonable full prices in their BOOK-STYLE menu! I enjoyed an excellent spaghetti carbonara (literally one of my all-time favourite dishes) and a gorgeous platter of desserts to share with my other half. I have since discovered that Stock also accept the Tastecard (www.tastecard.co.uk - sign up for your free trial, no need to give any payment details, easy peesy) which gives 50% of all food - an absolute steal. I will definitely be going back here soon. It is a venue that will impress the in-laws and guarantee your taste buds are sufficiently tickled.

The Northern Quarter is an area of youthful innovation and experimentation in new food and drink formats. Its well-known Italian offering comes in the form of Dough - which prides itself on its unique, fresh dough (also offered as wholemeal) used to create a whole range of traditional and exotic pizzas. Their menu is definitely worth a gander. This is definitely your more quirky, contemporary dining experience, and not particularly Italian but incredibly tasty and well-priced.

Another hidden gem is Don Marco, situated in a peculiar little building across the road from the Hilton Hotel on Deansgate. They offer an excellent lunch deal - any pasta, pizza or salad with a drink for £7.95 - which goes on until 4pm. I went here for dinner with a friend one evening and had some delicious food in what is a gorgeous, cosy but modern restaurant. They have a part-outdoor but covered courtyard area in the restaurants with heat lamps, which makes for a lovely atmosphere. And our waiter was a charming, cheeky man when we visited. This place is worth a visit if you like a stylish Italian evening meal in a warm and interesting environment - for once a place that embraces the smaller spaces rather than big, white walls and minimalist decor.

Per Tutti

Which leads me to my final mini-review of the year-old Per Tutti, directly across the road from Don Marco (Liverpool Road). I will admit that I had previously forgotten about this place in my tally of Italian restaurants, but was reawakened to its potential by the Tastecard! With 50% off food, I thought why not organise a double-date here, having been recommended it by a friend a few weeks ago. So last night we visited the restaurant and indulged in three courses of exceptional quality cuisine. It was quite busy and as a result rather noisy, but I don't mind that as it make for a fantastic atmosphere. The service was brilliant, and I was tied between pretty much every dish on the menu as well as the Specials board! I settled for the Soup of the Day (white onion and garlic) and one of their specials, spaghetti carbonara. My accomplices opted for other dishes and we were all equally impressed - so much so, that it was actually my friend's Calzone pizza that inspired this article. He had almost finished eating it by the time I remembered to take a picture, so the photo I share with you here is in fact of someone else's Calzone - but you can see the love that has gone into making that freshly-twisted crust. It was divine (I did steal a bit from my friend before he finished!). My carbonara was very good ideed, as was the soup which came with warm, crusty bread. Nice to go somewhere with an interesting Soup of the Day offering for a change! Despite my very full tummy, I still managed to find space for dessert - a strawberry Freddo with basil sugar and cream, which was utterly gorgeous and had so much flavour packed into it.

Before we left, we had a brief chat with the manager who said that business had not been as good as he had hoped, hence the Tastecard deal. He informed us that he is planning on "adding some colour" to both the interior and exterior of the restaurant in order to demonstrate that this isn't just another pretentious restaurant. We agreed that the "swanky factor" can put a lot of people off - I for one hadn't even bothered to look at the prices until I heard it was on the Tastecard restaurant list. I cannot wait to go back here in the near future - hopefully before everyone else realises how good the food is. Somewhere I would happily take my father, and my new favourite Italian restaurant in Manchester.

Me, filled with spaghetti carbonara

Lemon tart with limoncello gelato

My strawberry Freddo

The magnificent Calzone

The view from Liverpool Road while we ate!

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