There's been a lot of talk in the last couple of weeks about blogger integrity. This began with an interesting piece from Jay Rayner about whether it was possible to be honest and impartial in reviewing a free meal, and ended in a bit of a free-for-all in which bloggers were pretty much presented as a bunch of slavering hyaenas, rampaging the streets of Manchester in search of free food and booze and generally turning up at the opening of an envelope etc etc. My own policy has always been a/ honesty, whether it was free or not, and b/ only to go to places I think I would probably have gone to anyway as a paying customer.
And so, when the invite came through to attend the launch of the latest branch of Italian chain Zizzi in Manchester's Piccadilly Gardens, my first thought was to say no. There is a Zizzi in Didsbury not ten minutes from my house, and I have never been; a little hypocritical, then, to go to a freebie at one in town. But the reason I've never got round to going to my local Zizzi is my inability to see beyond my fervent love of Gusto Didsbury - also part of an Italian chain and one of my very favourite places to eat. And, if I'm being perfectly honest, the invite talked of live music and plenty of Aperol Spritz and just sounded, well, like really good fun.
And it was. First impressions were excellent - we ate downstairs and were very impressed with the look of the new restaurant. The high, arched ceiling prevents the space from feeling claustrophobic, and there are some thoughtful touches here, from the beautiful wall panelling to the tins of olive oil on each table. The staff also couldn't have been more helpful, coping superlatively well with a restaurant full of hungry people all sitting down to eat at the same time and still finding time to chat - there is a really friendly, welcoming atmosphere that bodes well for this restaurant's future.
The food itself wasn't quite so perfect, although we did find much to enjoy. We chose from a limited menu, and were brought a generous sharing platter to fight over amongst the four of us as a starter - calamari rings, garlic bread with mozzarella and caramelised balsamic onions, mixed olives, tomato and pesto bread and Italian cured meats. The standout here for me was the garlic bread, which offered exactly the right balance of stink-inducing garlic, mild melty cheese and sweet, soft onions - I really enjoyed this and ate a great deal more than my share. We felt the meats could have been of a slightly higher quality, but I think a slight toughness to the texture was probably a result of getting so many platters ready ahead of time leading to some of it sitting about for a while.
Mains were patchy but with some flashes of quality. I had the linguine ai gamberi: king prawns and courgette ribbons in a hot roquito chilli, tomato and lobster sauce, and found it a pretty pleasing dish - good pasta, cooked al dente and served with generous amounts of courgette and prawn in a nicely spicy sauce. I couldn't taste much lobster going on, but the sauce did have an excellent texture that perhaps reflected its presence if not its flavour. Elsewhere on our table, the dish of choice was the intriguing-sounding Rustica Pizza Pescatore, one half topped with king prawns, courgette, mozzarella, roquito chillies and creme fraiche, and the other with crab, baby plum tomatoes, parsley, capers and rocket. Sounds good, doesn't it, and it looked really good too when it arrived. Unfortunately, both of our pizzas were cold - and although the staff explained that the crab topping was meant to be cold, the prawn half and the entirely of the base was also scarcely above tepid. To be fair, this was instantly put right, and new pizzas brought - we were assured these were fresh out the oven and they were certainly much warmer, although still not perhaps the temperature we would have liked.
Dessert was a sexy trio of chocolate tartufo, tiramisu and lemon meringue sundae, and certainly looked the part. I couldn't try the tiramisu as I don't like coffee and found the lemon dessert a little overly sweet; the tartufo was beautiful though, lovely dark chocolate mousse, not too sweet and with just the right texture. We also had a chocolate fondant-style dessert from the allergens menu for the dairy intolerant member of our party, and this was pronounced superb by everyone on the table, including the dairy lovers.
So am I glad I went? Yes. The menu has some interesting options on it, and some of the dishes suggested that it would be possible to have a pretty good meal here without spending a fortune - particularly in view of the high numbers they were catering for on Friday night. I reckon I will give the Didsbury one a whirl sometime as I'm interested in trying from the full menu - I'm desperately hoping I don't get a taste for it though. Two good Italian chains in such close proximity to a greedy person's house spells nothing but trouble...
- Zizzi Piccadilly is at Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester, M1 1LU; tel. 01612 368855. We ate as guests of the restaurant, but then you already knew that :)