“I feel a bit like I’m eating at Vesuvio’s with Tony and the guys,” said The Restaurant Fanatic, visibly happy with the comparison. And he’s right – the San Carlo’s experience is all very dramatic. Before you’ve even sat down at your table, you’re greeted by three attractive front of house girls, with infectious, toothy smiles, and taken around an impressive display of lobsters and crabs, so perfect they almost look like fake, amongst a forest of emerald green parsley and gigantic spherical lemons on a mountain of ice. Walking past other tables, we see some patrons who almost belong in Vesuvio’s in The Sopranos – middle-aged balding men with napkins tucked into their shirts, their wives wearing their best cocktail dresses and jewellery and groups of non-descript businessmen in suits with their clients. All this, just a 10 minute drive from Manchester Piccadilly.
Being a proud Londoner who sleeps, works and plays in Zone 1, being in Manchester on a weekday can only mean one thing. I’m here for business. Strangely though, Media Agency Up North have politely turned us down our invitation to dinner at the Italian. And he’s right, it’s rare for media agencies to turn down free dinners, let alone one at one of the most well-known local favourites. “Oh well, their loss”, said The Restaurant Fanatic. And he’s right – for a Tuesday night, the restaurant is fairly busy when we sit down and as the night progresses, it starts to rapidly fill up – surprisingly, more than some places in Central London on a Thursday or Friday night.
The place is satisfyingly Italian in character. The waiters are just the right side of pushy, refer to you as ‘signori’ and ‘madam’ and the décor is theatrical (but retro and just about subdued enough that it can pass off as ‘glamourous’ rather than ‘bling-bling’) – think giant chandelier structures, bottles of fine wine on display and spectacular displays involving whole salted cod dishes. It isn’t the kind of place you turn up to just for dinner, but somewhere you take someone worth impressing – girlfriends, fiancés, clients, and so on. Hardly surprising then, that San Carlo is a footballers’ favourite, with VIPs like Rihanna and celebs like, erm, Ant and Dec.
The menu is suitably impressive, if only in size alone. It’s an A2-sized, double-sided laminated fold-out monster reminiscent of the local city maps you inevitably find yourself using on city breaks, or old travel brochures of days gone past. On the plus side, it’s one of those menus which has such a such a great selection of food that you’ll genuinely struggle to choose just one or even two dishes (cue the clichéd “It all looks so good!”, “I just can’t choose between…”, etc). Thankfully, you won’t look greedy as you’ve got the option of eating ‘the way it’s meant to be done’ – with an aperitivo, antipasto, primo, secondo with contorto and even dolci if you’re feeling decadent.
After being not-so-gently nudged by the waiter, we eventually settled on a bottle of Vapolicella (relatively pricey but not ridiculously so) before moving onto ordering a selection of courses. Myself and Clapham Girl both opted for the lobster ravioli as starters – which was served in a fairly rich that almost had hints of saffron, but with the perfect balance of sauce and lobster meat which made it light enough to be eaten with some bread on the side – with a plate of homemade patê for The Restaurant Fanatic. For the main, Clapham Girl and The Restaurant Fanatic both had agnello alla Toscana – cutlets of lamb in a Madeira based sauce, with rosemary and sundried tomatoes – while I chose the garganelli salsiccia & porcini, which was perfectly cooked and expertly seasoned. Garganelli is a new pasta shape to me, but comes from the same region as my favourite strozzapreti and here it was perfectly al dente (as you’d expect from any self-respecting family-run Italian establishment), and the quality of the salsiccia was exceptional, so absolutely no complaints at all. We’d barely had time to take a swig of wine after the main before the not-so-subtle waiter presented us with the dessert menu (with the usual “signori”). Despite being satisfyingly full at this point, The Restaurant Fanatic and I decided to take a peek at the dolci on offer (Clapham Girl had to sit this one out), opting for the cheese board and crème brule respectively. Also on offer were several mouth-watering choices, including tartufo flambe’ con Sambuca, panna cotta and crostata al frutti di bosco.
Bizarrely, we were assumptively presented with a second bottle of Vapolicella just before the desserts arrived (the crème brulee was perfectly booked inside, the only small complaint being that the crust was a tad too thick). Whilst we’re the kind to complain about more alcohol, the service seemed to be fairly aggressive and insistent in nature. Luckily, for the charming (albeit slightly passé) nature of the restaurant and the large quantity of simple, flawlessly executed dishes more than makes up for the relentless upselling. In fact, if we weren’t trained sales people, we probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelid and just mistaken it for a very direct show of generosity.
As we stumble out merrily after the second bottle of red, the girls with the contagious smiles thank us for coming and the immaculate crustaceans silently ask us to come back soon. But it’s all a façade really – a very glitzy Vegas-esque façade – the real gem at San Carlo’s is definitely the confident, simple and effortlessly elegant food. I’ll be back soon Manchester, and when I do I’ve got my sights on the tagliolini lobster.
San Carlo Manchester
42 Kings St West