If I were asked to choose my favourite country (although tragically, I never have been asked), I think my answer would be Italy. I'd like to pretend this is entirely due to erudite, highbrow reasons - the architecture, the art, the culture, the sense of history lurking round every corner...and of course, these all play their part. But when I look back on the three holidays I have taken in Italy, I must confess that every single one of my most vivid memories is something to do with food. From eating the freshest imaginable squid in a square in Sorrento to snarfing a superlative anchovy pizza at the base of Vesuvius whilst admiring a fleet of young men on Vespas, Italy has everything the greedy traveller (me) could wish for.
Eating Italian food in Britain is never going to be quite the same (fewer hot Italian men, for one thing), but there are some decent places in Manchester to keep you going until back in warmer climes. Many of these are independents, such as the lovely Azzurro in West Didsbury, but I have long been a fan of the small Gusto chain, part of Living Ventures and with a restaurant in Didsbury that I frequent most regularly. Olive Bar & Restaurant on Lloyd Street in central Manchester is also one of this tasty Mediterranean family, and was pretty packed on a freezing cold Tuesday night - perhaps due to its very reasonably priced pre-theatre set menu. We wanted the full works, however, and put away the following:
Pre-dinner warm-up: marinated olives and baked rosemary focaccia with olive oil and balsamic vinegar; glass of Prosecco. Cruelly robbed of a passeggiata opportunity by the gales and icy rain outside, instead we sat snugly in the window and watched the world go by with some excellent olives and some well-flavoured, nicely textured bread: far more civilised.
Starters: homemade chicken liver pâté with red onion & cranberry chutney; slow cooked duck and pistachio rigatoni. I consider pâté to be a good benchmark in judging an Italian restaurant - it's not difficult to make, and therefore in any decent place should be a joy. This certainly passed the test, with a layer of butter on top and rich, garlicky, perfectly pink pâté underneath. AND they brought enough toast, which almost never happens, often leaving me to surreptitiously scoop up remaining pâté with rocket leaves that are rarely up to the task. I also approve of menus that allow half portions of pasta for a starter - the duck ragu was nigh-on perfect, clinging seductively to the slinky pasta and reminiscent of a similar dish I once had in the middle of nowhere at an Italian family's kitchen table. Good start.
Mains: Tagliatelle with prawns, garlic and sweet chilli tomato sauce finished with fresh lime and rocket; 6oz chargrilled fillet steak with roasted air dried tomatoes and fries. I nearly always have pizza when I go to Gusto, and therefore took the chance to try something different. The pasta dish was delicious, hiding a generous number of fat crustaceans in a nicely sweet tomato sauce, although I didn't think the rocket added much to the overall effect - it was presumably there for variety in texture but it didn't really work for me and I would order this dish without it next time. The rare steak was well-flavoured and suitably bloody, with the tomatoes adding a note of sweetness and the fries proving utterly irresistible with both sides of the table. Staff were more than accommodating in removing the garlic butter from the dish at our request and replacing it with a beautiful red wine and beetroot reduction in a separate jug. In fact, everyone we encountered all evening was utterly charming, and if they noticed me whipping all the fries in an unladylike manner, they certainly didn't acknowledge this fact.
After this little lot we were far too full for dessert, although I have my eye on one or two things I've mentally lined up for my next visit - the bombolini mini doughnuts, for example, that I've had before at Gusto Didsbury and very much want to meet again. The wine list is well-priced and pleasingly Italian in nature; we had a beautiful Frappato Nerello Mascalese, which was bold enough to cope with the pâté and the steak but didn't overwhelm the prawn dish.
So, no - eating at Olive is not the same as perching on a bar stool in the middle of Florence, or eating fresh fish by the sea in Sorrento. But if there are many more pleasant ways of spending a wet Manchester night, then I'd be very pleased to be introduced to them.
- Olive Bar & Restaurant is at 4 Lloyd Street, Off Deansgate, Manchester M2 5AB; tel: 0161 832 9090, and will be rebranding as a Gusto restaurant later this year. We were invited as guests of the restaurant and were not asked to pay for our food or drinks, but we both thought the menu was good value and eat from this chain regularly.