Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Sneak Preview! Italia, Manchester

Italia? Is that a new restaurant? Well technically it's ancient, as old as the modern Manchester dining scene, as old as the manky hotdogs in the window of the hotdog cart on Market Street and nearly as old as the hills themselves...

So what's all this about a sneak preview? Italia, or Rustica as it has been known over the years, has been trading at the top of Deansgate since 1977, when the UK's perception of high class Italian cuisine and sophistication was a thick based pizza and an overly creamy lasagna. Unfortunately as tastes changed Rustica didn't, still churning out those solid, staid staples to an ever ageing/dwindling clientele; that is until Fraco Sogitu, the guy behind Solita, stepped in.

Rebranded back to its original name (it opened as Pizzaria Italia), Italia aims to make take proper Italian food and deliver it Manchester, whilst keeping traditional staples (albeit with a little twist/taking the recipes back to their proper Italian versions) and doing it all at a price that is accessible to everyone. So here we have Carbonara minus cream and bolognase with tagliatelle/ragu (see, they know what they're doing).

Located in a building that’s earmarked for ‘development’ (ie bulldozing), Franco hasn’t pumped millions of pounds in to a glitzy face lift or hired in a celebrity chef from Milan to transform the menu – indeed many of the original 70’s fittings are still there – instead he’s given it a kick up the arse to create a laid back, true to its roots place that uses the best quality and regional ingredients to create dishes us Northern folk would label 'proper tasty.'

Original 70s dessert trolley (don't worry, the pudding is freshly made)

A plate of mixed bruschetta to start with – pear and gorgonzola a sure fire favourite for its sweet and tangy contrasts; smoked mozzarella and anchovy worked exceptionally well and lardo (cured pork fat) was a lighter, tastier version of bone marrow on toast.


Lots of bruschetta for my little tummy to contend with

Next were risottos – both cooked properly al dente (unlike most of the manky, soggy crap you get in Manchester). The butternut squash and fontina-full Invorno; light, silky, sweet and given an extra taste/texture dimension with the inclusion of crushed amoretti – inspired, but I could only eat a small portion. And the yet unnamed simple, yet stunning (although still slightly too cheesy) caviar risotto, made with farmed sturgeon from France (yes I thought it was impossible too); this will eventually appear on the specials menu when they’ve finished tweaking those cheese levels.

Carrying on with the rice and cheese, we literally pulled apart the Suppli al Telefonica – pillowy soft rice and mozzarella sticks, covered in a light breadcrumbs and fried – I guess these will be my downfall one day; when they cut me open they will be pulling out big strings of mozzarella from these (that’s how this dish gets its name – telephone wires).


Suppli al telephonica served on a bed of kick ass tomato sauce to cut through the cheese

Dish of the night was gnocchi coda di bue brasta (gnocchi baked with oxtail) –I haven’t had such light as cloud gnocchi like these since I was last in Italy and being cooked for by my Dad’s friend’s Nonna (she's amazing, but pretty scary). Beefy and thick; softly, softly rich; comforting and delicious…drooling just thinking about it.


Food porn - seriously - just go order this now

There’s an inka grill installed at Italia (like Solita) and Franco was determined to show it off – three large tiger prawns with nothing more on them than the charred skins on their back – they didn’t need anything as the succulent woody char they picked up from this ingenious (and expensive) bit of kit was enough.

It wouldn’t be an Italian without the pasta – firstly a menu dish, Zitti Contadino – so called the most messy pasta in Italy as the long tubes wiggle all over the place. It may have been messy (and very fun), but the sauce was sublime simplicity; tomato and vegetable shot through and pepped up a good dose of piquant gorgonzola. Then for something special – naked spaghetti with bottarga grated over the top (that’s dried tuna/mullet roe) – sounds a bit ming, but is in fact very tasty (if you miso soup or anything very savoury then this will suit you) – not a dish that’s on the menu, but it may sneak on to the specials, so keep your eyes open!

And then pudding. Or three puddings to be exact – cannoli, oranges with ice cream and cheesecake. All perfectly lovely, but by this point in the tasting I was calling for the torture/pleasure to stop and rolled my fat belly down the conveniently placed hill to the station and then ultimately to a stuffed and satisfied sleep.


Torture - I mean freshly made cannoli and gelato

As is apparent from the menu, Italia is not about fancy pants dishes or charging exuberant costs for fiddly food – it’s about Italian classics/traditional dishes, cooked well and for a fair price with a specials board for those dishes that are a little different. With very competent chef Tim Shirley (ex-Jamie's Italian and Piccolinos) in the kitchen and a dedicated, knowledgeable and enthusiastic floor staff it looks like they have all the ingredients for success.

Please note Italia is not fully open yet and the menu is not finalised, so I’m not going to score on this occasion. However from what I’ve seen it’s fair to say the food is of a very high quality for a pretty decent price.

Please note I was comped all the food in this piece, but as you know from other places I been and slated, I’m under no obligation to say nice things, I just thoroughly enjoyed the food and good company.
Italia, 40-42 Deansgate, Manchester M3 1RH - Twitter - Website