Now, in any city there will be restaurants you just never end up going to for one reason or another. Perhaps they lie slightly off the beaten track, or are out of your price range, or appear in the local paper on a regular basis for having mice and cockroaches in the kitchen. Perhaps a friend has had a bad experience there, or they serve a type of cuisine you don't like. Or maybe, as with the case of Don Giovannis on Oxford Street in central Manchester, you just don't really know why, other than a vague feeling that there are better places to eat elsewhere. Don Giovannis have a new menu though, and are keen for people to try it...so last night we did, and were pleasantly surprised.
We arrive shortly before 7.30 on a beautiful evening, full of the joys of Spring and absolutely starving our heads off. Initial impressions of this venerable establishment (a Manchester stalwart since 1984) are mixed - I am not keen on the orange chairs, but we are given a lovely table in the window, and as the daylight fades and the fairy lights begin to glow there is an undeniably warm and convivial atmosphere in the restaurant (and as Mr Liz obligingly points out, my backside amply covers the offending orangeness of my chair *glares, but cannot deny accuracy of in-trouble husband*).
We order from the a la carte and start with that obligatory classic, Tomato Garlic Bread. We ask for this to "be going on with" as I am so hungry that I am considering eating my napkin or perhaps a nearby table leg, but it arrives with our starters instead and is thus slightly redundant. This is the only service blip of the evening though, and the bread itself is thin, crispy and delicious - as it should be in any half-decent Italian restaurant. I also very much enjoy my starter of Frittura Mista, which is amongst the dearer of the starters at £8.45 but is a veritable riot of fishy favourites - deep-fried calamari, scallops, king prawns and white bait
served with a good, thick aioli which has plenty of flavour but doesn't overpower the fish. The scallops are particularly joyous - two plump fellows served with coral still attached; in fact, by comparison, Mr Liz's calamari looks a little wan - good as he declares it, I would rather pay the extra £1.50 and have scallops and king prawns thrown in any day.
For mains, Mr Liz won't be swayed from his default choice - if we're eating somewhere that offers a Diavola pizza then he orders it. It turns out to be a pretty good example of the species - I like the cooling, creamy mozzerella and the contrast it creates with the spiciness of the salami and chilli, finding the overall effect fresher than ones he's had elsewhere. Mr Liz comments to the waiter that he'd prefer it slightly spicier, but this is immediately rectified with the offer of some additional chilli oil and next time I look up, the whole thing is gone. My own main course is one of the new dishes on the menu, the Spaghetti Neri al Granchio e Vongole - squid ink pasta with fresh crab meat, clams, cherry tomatoes, garlic, white wine and parsley. We feel it is not the most elegant presentation - it looks like I've already been at it in the picture below, whereas I promise I haven't - but it turns out to be the stand-out dish of the night; every restaurant needs to give you a good reason to go there, and for me it would be this. The crab-to-spaghetti ratio is perfect, and although I get myself in a terrible mess with the crab claws I am clearly enjoying myself - the American businessman at the table next to us leans over to enquire about my dish, and says his wife will love it when she joins him next week. Incidentally, this gentleman eats at Don Giovannis on his own every week, because he likes the food and the way they look after him - such reciprocal loyalty is always worth noting in any restaurant.
To wash all of this down (we are FAR too full for dessert), we choose a perfectly good Sangiovese at £16.95 from a wine list that is heavy on Italian selections - as it should be, although this is not always the case in Italian restaurants in the UK. We do feel that some cheaper wine options would be a welcome addition to the list, but overall the meal is good value for city centre - a fact surely reflected in the number of families packed into the restaurant on what is clearly a busy night. Tomato bread blip aside, the service is charming and efficient, although I do need to point out that we were invited to review the new menu, and were given a contribution towards the cost of dinner. Will we visit again? Very probably, especially if we were going to the Palace Theatre or to Manchester Central with family - or as part of Mr Liz's new favourite night out, for he has discovered that Don Giovannis lies exactly halfway between Brew Dog on Peter Street and The Whim Wham Cafe on Whitworth Street - a fact he is unlikely to forget anytime soon, and one that explains this morning's beer and gin head...