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Saturday, 27 October 2012

Italia Manchester: Local Girl Goes Back to the Seventies, in a Good Way

Now, I am by and large a staunch defender of the 1970s. I suspect that this is mostly due to me being born in this particular decade (which obviously does much to make it a special time for us all), but not actually really remembering any of it: thus, my mental image of the 70s is a confused but confident melange of all that is glamorous and good in the world. Look! Here's Bianca Jagger in a pair of white jeans much like the ones I have upstairs; she is accessorising them with a nice wedge, and talking to Jerry Hall, who is wearing a jump suit with all the insouciance of a six foot Amazon with hair like a crinkly blonde waterfall. Over here, David Bowie is looking beautiful and aloof - people stare at the make up on his face, as he ponders the release of the greatest run of albums ever known to man; in a moment he will light Bryan Ferry's cigarette for him, although I have not yet decided whether Bry is sporting gold lame, or that whole tuxedo look he does so well.

Of course I know, in my heart of hearts, that the 70s were not really like this. I have seen pictures of the Bay City Rollers, and I have flinched; I have heard tales of the food that restaurants used to serve, and I have flinched again, relieved that at the time I desired nothing more than a bigger helping of butterscotch Angel Delight than my sister. Take Rustica, for example, that venerable old Italian restaurant on Deansgate: you know it - it's that big white building on the corner, near Harvey Nichols, that has been open since 1977 but which you have never been in as it all looks a bit too retro, a bit 70s-in-a-bad way - an idea supported by even the briefest of glances at the reviews on Trip Adviser.

All of that is set to change, however. Franco Sotgiu - who many of you will know from SoLIta, his brother Dom's Northern Quarter burger den - has got his hands on Rustica and is gradually changing its identity to Italia: same building, same sense of history...just with fresher, updated menus offering more of a focus on traditional, high quality ingredients. Italia is currently in its soft launch period, and as such menu details may change, but the meal we ate last night should give you a feel of what the new venue has to offer once it is fully relaunched.

Pre-starter Starter: yes, yes, I know, but Franco sent these fellows across for us to try and frankly I was powerless to resist them - this is the finest plate of bruschetta I have come across in Manchester (and look how well he knows us - he has sent us a plate each, understanding that sharing would be impossible and no doubt wishing to avoid a scene). Highlights here included the fresh tomatoes, piled so high that spillage was inevitable, and the tangy grilled cheese with anchovy; the only one we weren't keen on was the pate one - it seemed a little warm, a little grainy, and there was also far too much topping in relation to bread (and it's not often I say that).

Starters: Mr Liz had the Calamari, because Mr Liz ALWAYS has the Calamari; this does allow for consistent judging across restaurants, and he proclaimed this plate of polenta-dusted beauties to be prime examples of their ilk - tender, flavoursome and not remotely chewy. I went for the gamberetto - four fat, pink, shell-on prawns in a rich cream sauce that really allowed the flavour of the fish to come through; my only teeny criticism was that the dish could have done with a piece of bread or similar to help mop everything up - I'm sure they would have brought one if I'd asked, but even I realised this would be folly after such a plate of bruschetta if an embarrassing explosion situation was to be avoided.

Mains: we shared a couple of mains - the Fritto Misto di Mare (fried mixed seafood) and the Parparadelle Ragu di Cinghiale (pasta served with 12 hour braised wild boar ragu). The second of these dishes was flawless - properly sticky, meaty sauce adhering to the slippery wide pasta, studded with chunks of tender, flaking boar: perfection. The Fritto Misto was well executed, but lacked something - the lightly battered prawns, squid rings and courgette slices were all competently handled (although the courgette could have been a little crisper) but somehow failed to work together, resulting in what felt more like a dish of exquisite nibbles rather than a coherent main. I also felt that £15.95 was a little much for such a dish, even allowing for the evident quality of the ingredients and the city centre location.

Desserts: Oh my. We left ourselves in the capable hands of the charming waiter for this one, and he chose well - he brought Mr Liz an enormous slice of tiramisu served with coffee gelato (all the ice-creams are freshly made on site) whilst I toyed modestly with* the great fat slice of Ferrero Rocher cake seen here with its side portion of hazelnut gelato. These were simply superlative, and I can all-too-well picture myself stopping for a slice of this cake whenever I'm passing - this should certainly be something that stays on the menu, encapsulating as it does the whole approach at Italia: a fond nod to the past but updated in a way that people actually want to eat. All the time.

*troughed in seconds

A few teething problems were evident - the place was absolutely packed when we arrived around 6.15, and once seated it was a considerable wait until our menus were brought and even longer again until the first food arrived. I spent much of this period watching as the queue of hungry people waiting for a table grew gradually longer and sadder, and whilst a line of diners hoping to get in speaks well of the quality of the food being served up, it certainly seems that Italia are still getting their heads round how many staff might be needed at particular times. Once the restaurant got a little quieter, the service was peerless, so the right team is obviously in place and these initial problems will no doubt be resolved. The friendliness of the place can be summarised by an incident that took place towards the end of our evening - an elderly gentleman, dining alone, was asked if he wanted to sit with Franco and (god help him) Gordo Manchester to eat; he did, and was blatantly having the time of his life when we stopped by to say hello. I can't promise you that you will have your "cold hands" carefully warmed by a charming old fellow when you eat at Italia, but it certainly seems like the kind of thing that could only happen here.

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