THE BLOG

This Week I Ate...San Carlo Manchester

29/06/2014 22:31 BST | Updated 29/08/2014 10:59 BST

When I was a child and as a teenager my father, a prodigious restaurant visitor, would occasionally treat us with a trip to an Italian restaurant. We lived in Notting Hill so that treat would invariably be one of the little Italian places in Hillgate village. There was a place called Arlecchino, for example. The menu followed the set pattern of antipasti, pastas, main courses and then a trolley of desserts.

When I was old enough we happily glugged the house wines, the service was always excellent - some elderly Italian geezer who went about his work like he meant business - and we always left satisfied and happy.

They are the sorts of restaurants that Italian restaurateurs these days tend to be rather dismissive of. They attack them in the same way aficionados attack the Indian restaurants of the 1970s and 80s. The latter were Bangladeshi, not representative of the amazing diversity you get in India as you travel from region to region.

Visiting Indian foodies to London would express their horror at those offerings. Madhur Jaffrey, for example, said of 1970s Indian restaurants that they were 'fake' and 'mediocre', the cooks were of poor calibre. Basically what was offered was 'degrading to India's great cuisine.'

Well she may well have been right. But on the occasions we ate Indian rather than Italian none of us gobbled up chicken tikka masala, ate naan bread and aloo gobi then sniffed at how degrading it was.

We loved it. And so we did the Italian joints.

Now we live in a sophisticated age, where Italian food is re-defined, where we must appreciate its regional subtleties and where we must scorn those memories of spaghetti carbonara and a couple of bottles of Frascati.

Now I'm as big a food snob as the next person (assuming they're a big food snob). It's my job to be sniffy, picky and pernicious. But I loved those old Italian joints. And I'm always hoping I can get the chance to visit one.

But now I discover that there are a whole load. They are traditional but they are even better than the ones in the seventies. Thing is most of them are up north. And given how we in London crave the latest, the best, the newest and the funkiest we tend to overlook them.

Because while I'm harping on about the Chiltern Firehouse - which you can't even get into - real people - especially in Manchester, for example, are pouring into San Carlo.

This restaurant is part of a large chain that isn't just in Manchester and Leeds and most other northern townE, it's in the Middle east and all over the shop.

Actually they have two restaurants in London, Cicchetti in Piccadilly and Signor Sassi in Knightsbridge. But critics like me are so busy gazing at our trendy, foodie navels that we overlook them.

So off I went to Manchester to see what the deal was. On King Street West, in the main shopping district of the city, you'll find San Carlo. And you'll discover an amazing story about this place too. For the man behind this business - a hugely successful restaurateur making millions from branches from Bangkok to Kuwait - used to be barber.

Carlo Distefano started his first San Carlo restaurant in Birmingham in 1992. It had been 30 years since he arrived in Britain to work as a barber.

He cut a good head of hair, so I'm told, but he loved his food. So much so that when he wasn't cutting hair, he was eating. And his hobby then became his main business. The other thing he did - which he still does to this day - is pitch up at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park each Sunday morning and address the hordes.

He's a man who doesn't do emails, he never looks at a computer but does all his business on his mobile. As he dines in one of his establishments, his managers phone through with news of takings.

He loves bright rooms and he loves the colour orange. These two things you will pick up when you walk in San Carlo. The chairs are orange, the space is light and bright. And he loves mirrors too. They are everywhere.

And the people of Manchester love San Carlo. It is packed every day. And this is why. He serves, proper, old-fashioned Italian food, at a reasonable price and presented by those waiters who look dead serious about the fact that they are taking your order for a plate of pasta.

I ate a starter which comprised three different pastas. There was spaghetti with lobster - a little bundle of it - and a perfect little ravioli of sage and butter. There was no bread, but a whole tomato and garlic pizza placed on a high stand over the centre of the table. Thin, crisp, wonderful.

Then I had one of the nicest, thinnest, gloriously anchovy-salted few slices of veal I can remember. Along came fried zucchini in batter, tempura style (light, fresh - ok, better than what we got in the Seventies with my papa) and al dente broccoli.

There was homemade ice cream too, a rather sweet pistachio cake from the trolley and an amazing millefoglie, the Italian version of the French pastry mille-feuille, which, frankly, rather knocks the French version out of the water.

Those lucky Mancunians. Although I gather they are opening a restaurant in Covent Garden. I'll be in there, ploughing my way through the grand Italian menu and toasting my father who would be jauntily twitching in his grave at the happy thought.