Most of my early dining out experiences were in Italian restaurants, whilst I love having access to so many other cuisines these days there will always be a little piece of me in love with Italian restaurants.
There are already countless Italians in Manchester, though most of them seem to be soulless chains serving the same old mediocre food. With a few notable exceptions such as Don Giovannis, Jamie’s Italian, Piccolino, Rio Ferdinand’s ‘Rosso’ and particularly San Carlo. So when I heard that Italian restaurant ‘Rustica’ on Deansgate (originally opened as Pizzeria Italia in 1977) was to be rebranded as ‘Italia’ I couldn’t help wondering if there was any need for it.
The one thing definitely in it’s favour is that it’s run by Franco who has done an amazing job at turning SoLita into one of the most exciting restaurants in Manchester. I spoke to Franco about where he sees Italia fitting into the Manchester Italian restaurant scene and he admitted that there is no way he can compete with big names like Jamie Oliver and Rio Ferdinand or with San Carlo and their million pound refit. What he can do is provide great quality food and service at a good price and that is exactly what he is doing.
We arrived at 6:30pm on a Tuesday and the place was packed due to a big gig at the nearby Manchester Arena. Thankfully Franco had saved the best table in the house for us and we had a great view of the kitchen, restaurant and busy street outside.
It became quickly apparent that Franco was well on his way to getting one of his goals right, the service. Mainly thanks to his brilliant front of house manager Pierro, who is slightly mad but in a good way, funny and completely charming.
So thumbs up for the service, how about the food?
First up the Bruschetta Selection. Nice bits of toast with 3 different toppings, cherry tomatoes, liver pate & Nduja. The tomatoes were fresh, sweet & juicy, i’m not a huge liver fan but this pate was rich and very smooth and quite delicate in flavour. The star was the Nduja – a spicy, spreadable sausage made from some of the best cuts of pork. I’d never tasted it before but read a lot about it recently and couldn’t wait to try it. It was every bit as good as I hoped, rich, meaty, incredibly tasty and a lot spicier than i’d expected. I enjoyed it so much that I ordered a stone baked pizza topped with it too.
Franco also treated us to a few drizzles of his 50 year aged balsamic vinegar which is very very special. I really don’t have words to do the taste justice. It was sweet and fruity and not at all harsh or vinegary, I’ve never tasted anything like it. You probably won’t get it on a bruschetta selection (maybe if you ask him really nicely) but it’s used in a couple of the main dishes so if you get chance you just have to try it!
Another starter ‘Suppli al Telefono’ was excellent as well. Rice balls (although ours were longer croquette shaped) with a smoked mozzarella centre. Crispy and golden on the outside with soft rice and stringy melted, slightly smokey mozzarella inside and the tomato sauce they were sitting in was simple but delicious.
The Nduja was even better on the pizza than the bruschetta! Possibly it’s nicer served warm but probably thanks to the gorgeous thin and crispy pizza base and generous amount of melted mozzarella and sweet red peppers. I’ve not had a better pizza for a long long time.
Of course I couldn’t visit a new Italian restaurant without sampling a couple of pasta dishes. First a gnocchi dish that I’ve heard a lot about. ‘Baked Gnocchi with braised oxtail and pecorino’, I love gnocchi and this was perfectly light and soft. The oxtail was fantastic, slow cooked until it was falling apart in a rich sauce and topped with melted cheese. A really hearty and comforting dish that I absolutely loved.
The seafood spaghetti from the specials board was good – well cooked pasta with equally well cooked prawns, clams and trout – but couldn’t quite live up to the big flavours of previous dishes. I did love that the dish wasn’t drowned in an unnecessary sauce, it was all about the seafood and the spaghetti.
Despite almost slipping into a food coma by this point I was determined to try a dessert. Franco warned me that they’re still working on them and they’re not quite up to the standard of the rest of the menu just yet so I had fairly low expectations but the Ferrero Rocher Cake was actually perfectly fine and I loved the little chocolate basket that the always excellent Cabrelli’s ice cream was sat in.
Some of the other desserts did sound a little uninspiring if I’m honest but they do have a ‘Gelato Bar’ serving a wide variety of Cabrelli’s top quality ice cream with some really interesting flavours like Oreo, Jammie Dodger, TuttiFrutti and even bubblegum! I saw loads of people ordering these and they seemed to be going down very well.
They also have a new highly experienced pastry chef starting this week and Franco has promised some exciting desserts including Rum Baba will be on the menu soon. As soon as they are I will be back for one for sure!
Italia is definitely not as glitzy and grand as San Carlo, Rosso or Jamie’s but they are doing something right. It’s providing good, traditional Italian cooking using great quality ingredients. The traditional food and 70s decor left me feeling very nostalgic and remembering some of the great experiences I had in similar restaurants as a child.
Unfortunately the standard of service slipped a little after both Franco and Pierro left but this is understandable as the restaurant is still in a ‘soft launch’ phase, i’m sure the other staff will be much improved once they are fully operational.
Overall it’s a hugely promising start and I can only see the restaurant going from strength to strength. I’m looking forward to going back and seeing how they’re getting on.
Date Of Visit:13.11.12Follow @FoodGeekUK